Nov. 16 2011 12:00 AM

Why downplaying the fact that three candidates in last week’s election are gay is a good thing


Amid the public discourse and
allegations about photo darkening, supporting drug dealers in
neighborhoods and questionable consulting contracts in last week’s City
Council election, one issue that rarely surfaced was the fact that two
candidates are openly gay. Nor did the issue come up for an openly gay
Lansing School Board member-elect.

The three candidates say the meaning
behind the issue not surfacing more signifies progress for the city,
one that is more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and
transgender community. It’s not that they avoided the issue — they
didn’t think it was worthy of attention.

Rory Neuner and Jason Wilkes, who lost
their bids for an At-Large and 3rd Ward Council seat, respectively,
said being gay was simply not part of the campaign. So did school board
member-elect Peter Spadafore.

“It was never an issue that came up in a
public way, which I think speaks to the community,” Spadafore said
Monday. “If someone asked, I was completely honest — it just wasn’t
part of the campaign. I think it reflects very well that Lansing voters
tend to care about issues that matter and not about issues that don’t.”

Neuner agreed: “I think this is a pretty
open-minded city. My experience living here has been very positive —
it’s not really been an issue for me in the campaign. I think it’s a
great sign of what kind of community this is.”

For Wilkes, something he “lives and
breathes every day” didn’t have a place in his campaign. “Gay, lesbian,
bisexual and transgender issues are important to me,” he said before
the election. “I live and breathe that every day.”

Wilkes doesn’t believe an issue like
someone’s sexual orientation, race or religious preference should
matter when voting them into public office. “I don’t believe being
black, white, gay, straight or what your religion is matters. My focus
is to be the voice of the neighborhood. … As far as my campaign and
what I’m running for, it’s somewhat of a non-issue.”

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund — a
nationwide organization formed in 1991 that works to elect LGBT
candidates for public office — notes on its website, “It takes courage
and determination to run for office and even more to run as an openly
LGBT candidate. In your pursuit of public office, you must run smarter
campaigns, raise more money and fight harder for viability and support
than your opponents.” 

The organization offers political
consultations, training and financial contributions to candidates it
endorses. Neuner was one such candidate who participated in a
weekend-long training program. Part of the training included discussing
“different scenarios where (the issue) could come up in a campaign,”
she said.

The Victory Fund says on its website
that there were 49 openly LGBT elected or appointed candidates when the
group formed in 1991. The group estimates there is more than 500 today
and that “roughly 22 (percent) of all Americans are represented by an
openly LGBT elected official.” 

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said he
was “pretty public” about the fact that he is gay in his past campaigns
for the City Council, Ingham County commissioner and city clerk.

Swope said the last time his sexual
orientation “was much of an issue” was when he ran for county
commissioner in 2000. When he ran for Lansing City Council in 1995,
Swope said, “it was more of an issue then.” 

“There was some whispering campaign stuff that I heard about. Since then it’s seemed to fade away,” he said.

Swope took office as city clerk in 2006
after serving five years as a county commissioner. He was the first
openly gay candidate elected to the Board of Commissioners and also the
first gay elected official in Lansing. Swope also donated to Neuner’s
Council campaign.

“I think Lansing voters have progressed
a lot in the last 10 years,” Swope said. “Over the course of the times
I’ve run, I’ve seen it really shrink in terms of what people are
thinking about and are concerned about.”

As for the issue being downplayed in this year’s election, Swope said: “It doesn’t surprise me. I’m glad for it.”