Deb Price | Punching Holes in the Pink Ceiling

The gay community has a strong shot this year at punching another hole in the pink political glass ceiling: The breakthrough would be adding an openly gay non-incumbent to Congress in back-to-back elections for the first time in history.

Two years ago, Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado was elected, raising to three the number of out gay lawmakers serving in the House. In the process, Polis shattered a barrier by becoming the first openly gay man elected to Congress as a non-incumbent.

Polis’ victory at the ballot box was also hugely important for another reason. An entire decade had passed since voters had elected an openly gay non-incumbent to Congress: Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. An uncloseted, non-incumbent had before never won a seat in Congress.

The third openly gay member of Congress is political heavyweight Barney Frank, D-Mass., who just celebrated his 70th birthday and came out in 1987 during his fourth term.

Polis, 34, and Baldwin, 48, have long, promising careers ahead. Each has the potential to become the first openly gay U.S. senator, governor or Cabinet secretary.

Although it’s unclear whether the House will vote on any gay-rights legislation this year, Frank, Baldwin and Polis are continually counting noses and prodding Democratic leaders. And while legislative progress remains frustratingly slow, the trio is helping to transform Capitol Hill by ensuring that heterosexual lawmakers are aware of working closely with someone gay.

With congressional re-election rates surpassing 90 percent, it has been rare until now for experienced and popular openly gay candidates to be in the right place at the right time. But the stars appear to have aligned almost perfectly this year when the unexpected retirement announcement of Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., created an opening in his solidly Democratic district.

Openly gay Providence Mayor David Cicilline, 48 – who served four terms in the state legislature before twice being elected to lead his state’s largest city – jumped into what is shaping up as a two-man battle. That contest will likely be settled in the September Democratic primary.

Cicilline is credited with revitalizing his city’s neighborhoods, reducing crime rates, improving schools and spurring private investment at a time when his state was suffering one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates.

He’s also a crackerjack fundraiser. He has $713,346 in his campaign treasury, compared with the $209,529 of his rival, former state Democratic Party Chair Bill Lynch.

In this anti-everything political year, Republicans could pull off an upset. But Cicilline, with high name recognition, big money-raising skills and a strong political record, has a very good chance of turning the gay congressional trio into a foursome.

This year is shaping up to be a strong one for gay politicians – both those running for office and those already serving:

  • First gay mayor in northern Florida: Craig Lowe, a 52-year-old openly gay city commissioner, won a runoff on April 13, confirmed by a recount, to become Gainesville’s next mayor – by 42 votes.
  • Big step in Houston: Lesbian Mayor Annise Parker recently signed an executive order to add gender identity and expression to the city’s anti-discrimination policy.
  • Midwestern dreams: Democrat Dave Coulter is running for Michigan’s state Senate. Now an Oakland County commissioner, he would be the only openly gay person in the state’s legislature. In Ohio, Democrat Nickie Antonio, a Lakewood City Council member, is running for the state House. She’d be Ohio’s only openly gay state legislator.
  • California contender: Steve Pougnet, Palm Springs’ openly gay mayor, is the only Democrat challenging Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif.

The pink bench of impressive, openly gay politicians ready to jump at opportunities to serve in higher office keeps expanding. The pace of change will accelerate.

Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues.

Copyright 2010