October 8, 2006, NYT
Foley Case Upsets Tough Balance by Capitol Hill’s Gay Republicans
By MARK LEIBOVICH
WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 — Every month or so, 10 top staff members from Capitol Hill meet over dinner to commiserate about their uneasy experience as gay Republicans. In a wry reference to the “K Street Project,” the party’s campaign to build influence along the city’s lobbying corridor, they privately call themselves the “P Street Project,” a reference to a street cutting through a local gay enclave.
For many of those men and other gay Republicans in political Washington, reconciling their private lives and public roles has required a discreet existence. But in the last week, the Mark Foley scandal has upset that careful balance.
Since Representative Foley, Republican of Florida, resigned after sending sexually explicit electronic messages to male pages, gay Republicans in Washington have been under what one describes as “siege and suspicion.”
Some conservative groups blamed the “gay lifestyle” and the gathering force of the “gay agenda” for the scandal. Others equated homosexuality with pedophilia, a linkage that has long outraged gay men and lesbians.
Conservative blogs and Web sites pointed out that gay staff members played principal roles in investigating the Foley case, suggesting that the party was betrayed by gay men trying to hide misconduct by one of their own. Some gay activists even began circulating a document known as “The List,” a roster of gay Congressional staff members and their Republican bosses.
“You can see where it would be easy for some people to blame gays for something that might bring down the party in Congress,” said Brian Bennett, a gay Republican political consultant. He was a longtime chief of staff to former Representative Robert K. Dornan, Republican of California, who regularly referred to gays as “Sodomites.”
“I’m just waiting for someone in a position of authority to make this a gay issue,” Mr. Bennett said of the Foley case.
The presence of homosexuals, particularly gay men, in crucial staff positions has been an enduring if largely hidden staple of Republican life for decades, and particularly in recent years. They have played decisive roles in passing legislation, running campaigns and advancing careers.
Known in some insider slang as “the Velvet Mafia” or “the Pink Elephants,” gay Republicans tend to be less open about their sexual orientation than their Democratic counterparts. Even though the G.O.P. fashions itself as “the party of Lincoln” and a promoter of tolerance, it is perceived as hostile by many gay men and lesbians. Republicans have promoted a “traditional values” agenda, while some conservatives have turned the “radical gay subculture” into a reliable campaign villain. And there are few visible role models in the party; Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona is the only openly gay Republican in Congress.
As the blame from the Foley case has been parceled out in recent days, some people in Washington suggested that the Republican leadership’s inadequate response to alarms about Mr. Foley was borne of squeamishness in dealing with a so-called gay issue. Meanwhile, some Republican staff members worried that several gay men caught up in the scandal would be treated unfairly.
They include Kirk Fordham, Mr. Foley’s onetime chief of staff who resigned Wednesday as an aide to Representative Thomas M. Reynolds, Republican of New York, and Jeff Trandahl, formerly the clerk of the House of Representatives, a powerful post with oversight of hundreds of staffers and the page program. The two men were among the first to learn of Mr. Foley’s inappropriate communications. Along with the Republican leadership, they have been criticized for failing to act more aggressively to stop the congressman’s behavior, and possibly covering up for Mr. Foley.
Mr. Fordham and Mr. Trandahl did not hide their homosexuality, and they were well known in Washington’s gay community. (Neither returned phone calls for comment.) Others, though, strenuously protect their private life.
“You learn to compartmentalize really well,” said one Republican strategist who, like many gay Republicans interviewed for this article, would talk only anonymously for fear of adversely affecting his career.
Mr. Fordham’s history illustrates the potential tensions between private life and professional rhetoric. After leaving Mr. Foley’s office in 2004, he worked as finance director for the campaign of Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida. In that race, a Martinez campaign flier accused a political rival of favoring the “radical homosexual lobby” by supporting hate crimes legislation that included protections for gay men and lesbians.
One of the inevitable facts, said Mr. Bennett, the former aide to Mr. Dornan, is that “there are just going to be some days when it’s hard to be a gay Republican.”
When asked why he remains in the party, Mr. Bennett gave an answer common to gay Republicans: he said he remained fundamentally in sync with the small government principles of the party and was committed to changing what he considers its antigay attitudes.
"I’m fighting hard, every day," said Mr. Bennett, who was among a small group of gay Republicans who met with George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign.
Like Mr. Bennett, other gay staff members wind up working for politicians they consider infamous for their inflammatory remarks and hostility to their cause.
Robert Traynham, the top communications aide to Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, endured the fallout from an interview Mr. Santorum gave to The Associated Press in 2003 in which he seemed to equate homosexuality with bestiality, bigamy and incest, among other things. Mr. Traynham had been openly gay for years, but that was not widely known in his professional life until a gay rights advocate revealed his sexual orientation last year. Mr. Traynham confirmed the report, and Mr. Santorum issued a statement in support of his aide.
In contrast to what many view as the right’s increasingly antigay rhetoric, members of both parties say there has been a growing tolerance for gays and lesbians within the Republican ranks.
“There’s been a change from 20 years ago when people used to be hyperconscious of staying in the closet,” said Steve Elmendorf, an openly gay Democratic strategist who was the chief aide to former Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who served as the Democratic leader. “Now there’s more of an evolution to a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule.”
An addendum could be “don’t flaunt.” “You just don’t wear it on your sleeve, bottom line,” said one gay Republican staff member.
“I always made a point of dating women,” said Mr. Bennett, who disclosed that he was gay at the end of his tenure with Mr. Dornan.
Others point out that advancing the beliefs and careers of the boss is a priority, and staff members are expected to stay in the background. “Discretion is what most members expect from their staff, no matter who you are,” said Tracey St. Pierre, who was chief of staff for former Representative Charles T. Canady, Republican of Florida.
“For many conservative Republicans, just being gay in itself is an act of indiscretion,” said Ms. St. Pierre, who is gay but was not open about it until shortly before leaving Mr. Canady’s office. When she worked with him in the mid-1990’s, one of his chief causes was legislation that would ban same-sex marriage. Ms. St. Pierre, who works for a federal agency, considers herself an independent now.
The code of behavior largely extends to Republican politicians themselves, a point underscored by Mr. Foley, who only publicly acknowledged this week that he was gay. He appeared in public with women whenever possible and held parties at his home that one guest described as decorated with photographs of himself with attractive women.
Mr. Foley had always refused to discuss his sexual orientation, a topic that drew increasing attention as he considered a bid for the Senate in 2004 and rumors about his personal life intensified. He decided not to run.
Despite his Mr. Foley’s silence, people on Capitol Hill assumed he was gay. “It was commonly known on Capitol Hill by staff and members,” said Representative Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois. “People have their own lifestyles as long as they mind their own business and play by the rules.”
Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida who served with Mr. Foley, said, “If you’re a gay Republican, you have to act like a Republican.” Mr. Scarborough, who is now the host of “Scarborough Country” on MSNBC, said “acting like a Republican” entailed going out on the campaign trail “talking about guns, chewing tobacco and riding around in a pickup truck.”
He contrasted that with gay Democrats, “who can strut around and still get a standing ovation.” He cited the case of former Representative Gerry Studds, the openly gay Democrat of Massachusetts who became embroiled in a sex scandal involving a page and still won re-election. And Representative Barney Frank, another gay Massachusetts congressman, has attained almost iconic status among gay men and lesbians.
Gay members of both parties describe the Foley matter as something that could jeopardize the role that gay men and lesbians have assumed in Republican politics.
One gay Republican campaign strategist said he feared that conservatives would “play to the base” and redouble their efforts to vilify homosexuals. “It’s one of the places the party goes when it’s in trouble,” he said. “A lot of us are holding our breath to see how this plays out.”
Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.