Elliot Spagat / AP

California’s openly gay candidate is no darling of LGBT establishment

Carl DeMaio, a moderate Republican, is more intent on tackling fiscal reform than social issues

SAN DIEGO – The “Carl DeMaio for U.S. Congress” sign outside a nondescript building at the northern end of this seaside city is as flashy as it gets at DeMaio campaign headquarters.

Inside, campaign staffers quietly work the phones. The candidate’s office is void of decorations beyond several framed photos of friends, family and campaign workers displayed on a console. One picture is of DeMaio and his partner, Johnathan Hale, publisher of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News.

A similar image of the couple in a campaign ad has catapulted DeMaio, a Republican, onto the national stage. When he released a Web ad in February that featured him and Hale holding hands and waving a rainbow flag, the attention it received had less to do with DeMaio’s being openly gay than with his being hard to pigeonhole.

He is not and never has been a gay rights activist and said he can’t understand why the ad was such a big deal, since it’s traditional for candidates to show off their spouses and families.

DeMaio, with Hale, campaigning for Congress.
Carl DeMaio for Congress

The big deal is that DeMaio, a moderate Republican who is more intent on tackling fiscal reform than social issues, is getting more support from Republicans in California’s 52nd Congressional District than from the LGBT establishment.

A former San Diego councilman and failed mayoral candidate (there were homophobic attacks and little support from gay rights groups then), he doesn’t want to discuss gay issues except to say that he’s for freedom of choice and has a 100 percent voting record on LGBT issues.

“I’m a reformer. I want to make government work,” said DeMaio, who turns 40 this September, just a few weeks before the midterm elections. “I’m a new-generation Republican … I want this party to expand its vocabulary. We have good ideas on the environment, education, homelessness, health care — issues that the Republican Party just simply hasn’t tackled. It puzzles me.”

He said he loves nothing more than when people ask him what party he belongs to or say to him, “I can’t quite peg you.”

The fact that he’s gay “should not be relevant,” he said. “Can we talk about the economy or the environment?”

Don’t ask, don’t get

The Victory Fund, a national organization that supports LGBT political candidates, said it has endorsed gay Republicans for decades and this year is backing Dan Innis in New Hampshire and Richard Tisei in Massachusetts, both openly gay Republican congressional candidates.

But not DeMaio.

“You have to apply for endorsements, and there has not been an application to us,” said Steven Thai, the group’s press secretary. He added that DeMaio’s ad was not groundbreaking. “It’s been done before,” he said.

The Victory Fund counts 500 LGBT elected officials nationwide, “ranging from mosquito control commissioner all the way to the U.S. Senate,” Thai said. There are six in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate: Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who in 2012 became the first openly gay senator to be elected.

“It’s an ideological battle rather than an LGBT battle,” said Susan Jester, president of the San Diego Log Cabin Republicans, which is supporting DeMaio locally and nationally. “Tensions have always existed between the progressive left and the right, and our community is not excluded.”

DeMaio’s lack of gay activism didn’t make him a darling of the LGBT community. He irked gay voters even further when he kept mum on Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage in California. It passed, but a federal court later ruled the measure unconstitutional.

“Prop 8 really was the coup de grace, and that’s really what put salt in already open wounds,” Jester said.

The wounds were gaping because one of DeMaio’s campaign contributors was the conservative publisher of the local paper who donated $125,000 in support of Proposition 8.

‘He may not be Mr. Personality, but he gets the job done. You’re never going to see Carl in a Speedo on a gay parade float.’

Susan Jester

president, San Diego Log Cabin Republicans

During Maio’s unsuccessful bid for mayor, a political action committee circulated an altered photo of him standing with a man dressed in drag. The PAC was later fined by the San Diego Ethics Commission.

Jester said that exit polls in national and state elections show that 25 to 40 percent of LGBT people interviewed vote for Republicans.

“The more conservative votes in our community don’t come out,” she said. “Being a gay Republican is the hardest closet of all to come out of.”

DeMaio said that it’s well known within the gay community that “if you’re single and at a bar, don’t let them know you’re a Republican.”

Gay groups don’t want to alienate the liberal left because that’s where their funding comes from, he said. “At the end of the day, they need the Republican Party as a boogeyman,” DeMaio said.

Despite that, district voters selected him as one of the top two candidates in the June primary. He is challenging the Democratic incumbent Rep. Scott Peters. And now DeMaio has a powerful ally in Washington. Republican California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who has raised money for the DeMaio campaign, was just named House speaker.

From Iowa to Orange County

A joyful childhood it wasn’t. One of three children born in Dubuque, Iowa, DeMaio grew up in Orange County after his family moved. When he was 14, his father abandoned the family. Two weeks later, his mother, who had been battling cancer, died. The children were split up (they’ve reunited since), and DeMaio was taken in by Jesuits and went on to Georgetown University.

They were years “of seeing people who were well off, and I had nothing,” he said. “I worked full time during college and finished in three years.”

After working as a political intern and eventually at the Congressional Institute in Washington, he decided to launch his own think tanks. He couldn’t get financing, so he maxed out two credit cards and was able pay off his debt in 30 days after selling 500 slots to his first event.

He sold the two companies he founded — the Performance Institute, a for-profit company that provided training for government officials, and the American Strategic Management Institute, which provided financial and management training for corporations — in 2007 to Thompson Publishing Group. 

DeMaio has used his business savvy in politics. While on the San Diego City Council, he spearheaded pension reform that eliminated guaranteed pensions for new city hires and froze pensions for current employees for five years. Voters approved the ballot measure 2 to 1 in 2012.

DeMaio proudly proclaims his congressional campaign “consultant-free” and hires vendors to do what he wants them to do.

“Carl is a businessman, a self-made guy who stands for basic moderate Republican rights,” Jester said. “Because he was not a gay activist, the community jumped him, which is very typical in other minority communities … They’re hypocrites.”

The LGBT organization GLAAD declined to weigh in on DeMaio’s candidacy.

“GLAAD is a 501(c)(3) and not able to comment on candidates who are running for office,” wrote Ross Murray, the groups’s director of news, in an e-mail.

Jester said DeMaio is a hard worker who has her full backing. “Carl is a businessman who happens to be gay and a Republican,” she said. “He’s all about the numbers, fighting the unions of their overgouging the public … He doesn’t care about gay people getting married if we’re all in the bread line.”

DeMaio’s no-frills approach to campaigning hasn’t earned him congeniality awards.

“He may not be Mr. Personality, but he gets the job done,” Jester said. “You’re never going to see Carl in a Speedo on a gay parade float.”

He may not have been embraced by some LGBT groups, but DeMaio said he has had many gay voters approach him and voice their support in hushed tones.

“I have found more acceptance, tolerance and support from social conservatives than from the LGBT establishment,” he said.

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