Chapter from Trailblazers: Profiles of America’s Gay and Lesbian Elected Officials by Ken Yeager
My interest in politics began at an early age. Two weeks after starting the seventh grade, I ran for class president and won. I do not know what possessed me to run or, to be more accurate, what possessed my mother to encourage me to run. Surely it was her idea, since I had never been so much as a room monitor in elementary school. I remember sitting around the kitchen table with my family making campaign buttons out of construction paper and writing clever political slogans that Mom made up as we went along. Holding office gave me a great deal of confidence and helped me establish my own identity.
My mother, while never a political activist, always had a sense of fairness and high moral standards. It was from her that I inherited my interest in politics. She was against war, poverty, bigotry, and racism, and by the time l was a teenager, I was against these things, too. After joining the school newspaper staff in the eighth grade, I wrote editorials against the Vietnam war and in support of the student protests. In the ninth grade, I was named editor and elected student body president. Looking back, I have no idea where I found the wherewithal to do either, much less both. As a teenager, l was on automatic pilot, full of energy and free of the self-doubts that plague me as an adult.
From my father I inherited my work habits and work ethic. He runs a heavy construction company in our hometown of Riverside, California, which is sixty miles southeast of Los Angeles. He is highly competent and successful at what he does. Throughout my childhood, I would see him leave for work in the morning and come home late in the day, six days a week. He never complained, seldom was cross, and was practically never home. Observing him, I learned that for any endeavor to succeed you must devote a large amount of time and energy to it. That is why by the time I was twelve l was willing to put in extra hours on school projects like student government and the newspaper.
Ever since I can remember, I knew I was gay. I also knew that I could never be openly gay in my hometown, and that I would have to leave as soon as I could. That is why on one hot, smoggy day after I graduated from high school I left Riverside for good, driving 400 miles to San Jose State University. Friends assumed I would major in political science, but I knew the conflict between the intensity of my political beliefs and the realities of what I could accomplish in the world would cause me too much anguish. Instead, I decided to major in English, with the intent of becoming a journalist.
Looking back on why I had to leave and what I missed out on, I wonder if the radical right realizes how their lies about gay people separate families, for we gay and lesbian youth leave our hometowns in greater numbers than nongay teenagers. Our absence means we do not have the opportunity to get to know our parents,siblings, and nieces and nephews as well as we would had the climate allowed us to stay.
It was my good fortune that San Jose State University had (and still does have) an excellent political science department, particularly when it comes to the study of local government. When I was a junior, I did an internship at San Jose City Hall with a councilwoman with whom I would have a long association, Susanne Wilson. I remember planting myself in her office, almost demanding that she give me as much work as was available in order to prove myself.
During my final semester, I worked on Councilwoman Wilson’s reelection campaign as her precinct coordinator. It was an overwhelming job for a twenty-two-year-old who had never worked on a political campaign before, but I lived and breathed the campaign, barely attending my classes. Through the job, I met people with whom I still have contact nearly two decades later, many of whom helped me when I decided to run for public office.
The years between college graduation in 1976 and when I came out publicly as a gay man were filled with politics. Throughout this period, I was resolved to be a behind-the-scenes person. It never once occurred to me that I would run for public office. How could I run? I was gay. Except for Harvey Milk, there were no gay politicians that I was aware of. Also, there was an antigay backlash sweeping the country. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, gay civil rights laws were being repealed across the country, starting in Dade County, Florida. In this homophobic atmosphere, the best I could do was to be in the background. In most cases, I worked for women candidates because I felt that having women in leadership roles would begin to change the rigid roles that society dictated for men and women. The ability to break down barriers—be they for women, gays and lesbians, or any minority group member—is why I am involved in politics.
In 1982, I was hired to run the reelection campaign for San Jose Congressman Don Edwards. After the campaign, he asked if I wanted to work in his DC office. After telling him I was gay (something he had no problem with), I said yes, under the condition that I would be his press secretary. He agreed, and off I went to Washington, believing my rapid ascent in national politics had begun.
After a year, I decided Washington wasn’t for me. I figured if I worked like a dog for years, I might one day be able to rise to a position of moderate authority. Even then, I knew my being gay would always restrict how high I could move in the government. Believing that I could bring about greater change from the bottom up rather than from the top down, I came back to San Jose, knowing that if I wanted to live the same fast-paced life I had had in Washington then I would have to create it for myself.
When I returned in 1984, San Jose was still reeling from the 1980 repeal of city and county ordinances that would have given gay and lesbians protection in housing and employment. In a mean-spirited and homophobic campaign, the fundamentalists defeated us badly at the voting booth by a three-to-one margin.
It was in this political and moral devastation that a local state assemblyman declared in a San Jose Mercury editorial that a new state bill forbidding discrimination against gays and lesbians should not be signed by the governor because it would give the “wrongful” practice of homosexuality legal, social, and political legitimacy. So prevalent was the antigay rhetoric that it probably never occurred to him that there would be any outcry against his views.
I was angry that an elected official thought I had forfeited my civil rights simply because I was gay. I realized that if I was to have any rights in San Jose, I would have to fight for them. I decided to challenge the assemblyman, using his weapon of choice: an editorial in the Mercury.
There was one small glitch. I wasn’t completely out. My byline in the Mercury meant I would come out to the newspaper’s entire Bay Area readership. I knew that the publicity might cause me problems. I wondered if my political friends would distance themselves because I was too out, or if I would ever be hired to manage another political campaign.
I told Congressman Edwards of my plans, realizing he might not think it a plus to have a press secretary who was openly gay. To my knowledge, there was only one openly gay legislative aide in the entire county. But he didn’t bat an eye. He said, “Do it.” And I did.
The day my editorial appeared in 1984 was a momentous one for me. Personally, I no longer had to keep two identities, one straight, one gay. I could start meeting more gays and lesbians. I even hoped I would become well adjusted, even happy. Politically, I would be free to resurrect the gay movement in San Jose. Inspired by the success of David Mixner with a group called MECLA—Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles—I cofounded the Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee (BAYMEC) with Wiggsy Sivertsen, a professor and counselor at San Jose State University.
At first, Wiggsy and I thought of operating only in Santa Clara County where San Jose is located, but Mixner had a vision of a statewide network of political action groups, so we added San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties to our sphere of influence. Two of the original BAYMEC board members were John Laird, an openly gay council member in Santa Cruz, and Rich Gordon, who later was elected to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
It was important from the outset that BAYMEC be professional. Wiggsy, who is one of the most dynamic and articulate people I have ever met, did the speaking, helped plan strategy, and used her impressive network of friends to open doors and raise money. Moreover, she made sure that lesbians were welcomed into BAYMEC, an accomplishment of which not all gay organizations can boast.
My role was more behind the scenes, doing all the work that keeps an organization going. I am a much better writer than speaker, so I wrote the brochures and newsletters, as well as doing the media work. I also brought my campaign and fund-raising skills to the group, which I used when I managed the local Stop LaRouche/AIDS Quarantine campaigns. Together, Wiggsy and I walked the corridors of city halls, county buildings, and boards of education, lobbying our elected officials on numerous issues and serving on a variety of task forces and committees.
For six years, I served as BAYMEC’s treasurer. I remember the contributions we received from the first solicitation, and the second, and the third. I remember the names of the people to whom I wrote notes thanking them for their support. I recall the first candidate endorsements, the first fund-raiser, the first speaker’s forum. It was an exhilarating time.
Wiggsy and I made a good team. Each of us brought something to the relationship that the other lacked. I believe I provided Wiggsy more discipline and organization, and she gave me more confidence and assertiveness. We often joke that we should have gotten married, given how much time we spend with each other. It is remarkable to us both that after all these years we have never grown bored or impatient with each other.
To me, the access BAYMEC has to all South Bay elected officials indicates to our contributors that their donations over the years have paid high dividends. Many PACs give money to politicians, but few are on a first-name basis with all the recipients. We have an excellent working relationship with almost all locally elected officials and can count on them to support fairness and equity for gays and lesbians.
BAYMEC did more than satisfy my need to do gay politics; it fulfilled an emotional need to connect to people. BAYMEC provided me a conduit to the gay community that I could never get through gay bars. As BAYMEC grew, I was like a proud parent who became more outwardly focused once a reason to exist beyond himself was found. The more I became involved with my city, the more my sense of alienation began to fade. John Gardner, the former secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Johnson and writer of several books on leadership, explained this occurrence best when he wrote, “Young people run around searching for identity, but it isn’t handed out free, not in this transient, rootless, pluralistic society. You have to build meaning into your life, and you build it through your commitments. Your identity is what you’ve committed yourself to.”
By 1985, I had grown tired of being a congressional aide. I did not want to wake up one day and find myself being an unemployed political hack. I was always interested in education, and I knew Stanford’s School of Education had a well-regarded education studies department. I applied and was accepted. When I finished my master’s degree, I was accepted into the PhD program with a full scholarship.
The years of graduate school were hectic. First there was school: going to class, doing research, and studying. Second, I was as busy as ever with politics, running BAYMEC, chairing the county AIDS task force, and managing two regional campaigns against Lyndon LaRouche’s AIDS quarantine initiatives.
In November 1990 after I turned in my dissertation, I traveled to Atlanta with a friend, Ira Greene, a dermatologist. He was attending a conference, and he invited me to go along. In the hotel room, he noticed a blemish on the back of my right upper arm and asked how long I had had it. I said I was not sure, but that I thought it was a big freckle. He expressed concern and said that I should have a biopsy done as soon as we returned.
As he suspected, I had a form of skin cancer called malignant melanoma, which is believed to be caused when a cell is damaged by ultraviolet rays, usually when a person is a child. For reasons oncologists do not fully understand, this genetically altered cell can then evolve, often many years later, into melanoma. If removed early, the cancer is not fatal, but it is deadly if allowed to spread. In December 1990, I had the operation to remove the tumor. Since then, there has not been a reoccurrence, and my doctor is optimistic that the melanoma will not reappear.
This episode with melanoma was not my first confrontation with a health crisis. I had taken the HIV antibody test in 1986 when a friend of mine learned he was HIV positive. I thought that if he could have the virus, then I could too. While waiting two weeks for the results, l could think of little else except my own mortality. My days were full of anxiety and soul searching. Although the trauma ended when I learned I was HIV negative, I know my psyche was altered in immeasurable ways by coming face-to-face with my own death for the first time. Perhaps this is why I was not as paralyzed by the melanoma diagnosis as I would have been otherwise.
This is not to say the cancer had no effect on me. It did. If I was going to die, I reasoned, I wanted to do two things. First, because I had started long-distance running in 1989 when I stopped smoking, I wanted to run a marathon. Second, I wanted to run for public office. Over the next two years, I accomplished both.
Would I have run for office without the cloud of death over me? I do not know. I might have put it off, waiting for a better time that never would have come.
In San Jose, as in many cities in Western states, there is a multitude of school districts. Many of these are separate K-8 and 9-12, each with their own independently elected school board. The elementary school district in which I lived had severe problems, and I contemplated running for the board. Although I knew I could do a good job, there were political liabilities that could not be ignored, such as the fact that I did not have kids. Also, I knew it would be difficult to be an advocate for gay issues at the elementary school level. I envisioned friends and voters thinking to themselves, ”It makes no sense that he is running for this office”—an observation that too many candidates miss. The irony was that at Stanford I studied children and family issues, and wrote my dissertation on the politics of child care. In this respect, I was as much an expert on educational issues as anyone in the community.
A political office that is often overlooked by candidates locally and throughout the state is that of community college trustee. In California, community college trustees have real power, making policy on issues dealing with curriculum, vocational education, academic standards, collective bargaining, and so on. In the community college district where I live—the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District—there are two colleges with a combined student population of 25,000 and an operating budget of $70 million.
As soon as I had the idea of running for college board, I knew the position was the right office at the right time. There were five reasons why it was a good fit.
First, I had paid my dues. For almost twenty years, I helped elect scores of people to office. I donated hundreds of dollars of my own money to candidates, political organizations, and minority groups. Through my work with BAYMEC, I helped hundreds of other candidates with endorsements and contributions. I joined marches and testified at hearings in support of other groups’ causes. I worked to build coalitions with women’s groups, unions, Democratic Party groups, Hispanic groups, Asian groups, and African-American groups. I knew the political players, and they knew me.
Second, I was a good match for the district. In my college board district, trustees run in specific geographical areas rather than at large, making the campaign less costly and easier to manage. This allowed me, as a gay candidate, to run a competitive campaign. Although my area contained 110,000 people, 42,000 of whom were registered voters, within its boundaries was the older section of San Jose. This is where I had lived for most of my adult life and which
had a high concentration of liberal Democrats and gay people. Also, there was no incumbent, which meant I could spend my time establishing my credibility rather than attacking a sitting politician.
Third, I had the credentials, both academically and professionally. Because of my PhD in education and my MA in sociology, I knew a great deal about educational policy and educational organizations. Professionally, I was teaching at San Jose State University, where I was hired after I finished my dissertation. This gave me classroom experience at the college level and added to my credibility as a candidate. It also provided me with an image that I could use in my literature. The main photo was of me lecturing to students in a classroom, reinforcing the message that I was an educator and knowledgeable about higher education. I never allowed myself to be defined as the “gay” candidate, which could have happened if I had not promoted myself as the candidate who was a San Jose State University professor.
Fourth, I knew how to run campaigns. I had worked for a national campaign consulting firm that was located in San Jose. Through managing school bond campaigns and overseeing the production of mail pieces for congressional candidates across the country, I learned the latest techniques in campaign management. I used much of this knowledge in my own campaign.
Fifth, I would be the first openly gay person ever elected to public office in Santa CIara County, a relatively liberal area with a a population of two millon people. I knew it was important for qualified gays and lesbians to run for office so voters would know that gays and lesbians can represent the interests of the entire community. Given my skills, connections, and resolve, I believed I would be a strong candidate.
For all these reasons, I felt confident about my decision to run for the college board. My main concern was whether I would be a good candidate and how well I would interact with voters. From past experience, I knew I was a good campaign manager, but I was unsure if I had what it took to be the person on center stage.
I was aware that it would be difficult to know how to balance my gayness and my qualifications for the job. It was fortunate that anybody who knew me in San Jose was aware I was gay because of how often I was quoted in the newspaper and appeared on local television. Setting aside the gay issue, I was a candidate like anybody else. When my consultants and I were designing my brochure, we saw my being gay as a nonissue because I was already out. Thus, we assumed my gayness would either be a big problem or no problem. If it was a big problem, then we would deal with it when it came up; otherwise it was to be downplayed.
When the filing period closed, there were six of us running, all men. It was fortunate for me that no women had entered the race because women candidates were expected to do well in the 1992 election. One candidate had a Spanish surname, which would help him in Hispanic neighborhoods. Only one of my opponents had strong community ties, and he proved to be my main competitor. He was a lawyer and a former ESL teacher at the community colleges.
After consulting with my political friends, I finalized the campaign strategy and budget. Once I was able to form a mental picture of the entire campaign from start to finish, my stress level went down. No longer was the campaign a nebulous concept, but a sense of tasks that needed to be completed, one by one, day by day.
The budget was set at $15,000, although I had no idea if I would be able to raise that amount. I loaned the campaign $500 to do initial printing of literature. Fortunately, money came in steadily, mostly from people I had known over the years. Without these prior contacts, I never would have found 200 people to donate between $25 and $100. At first, it was hard to ask for money, but I knew that if l didn’t have the grit to do it, then I was no good to myself or the issues I represented. Furthermore, as my campaign coordinator kept telling me, people will not give what they do not have. Amazingly, the more I asked for money, the easier it became.
Endorsements from elected officials and community leaders are crucial in any race, but even more so in low-profile ones where voters have not heard of the candidates. Because of the work I had done with many politicians on a variety of issues, securing endorsements was not hard. All I did was pick up the phone and talk to the person or his or her top aide. I usually got an answer the same day. My long list of endorsements helped to establish my credibility early, to raise funds, to get volunteers, and to win the support of other organizations.
The main strategy for the campaign was to contact voters through the mail. There were a total of three mailings: a four-page brochure, a personalized letter, and a jumbo postcard, all of which were to be mailed the final week. Selection of which voters would receive the pieces was determined by a longtime friend who owns a political database management company that handles lists of registered voters.
The second way that voters would be contacted was through a field and volunteer operation. The field operation included walking precincts, putting up signs on supporters’ lawns, and passing out literature. The volunteer operation mainly consisted of addressing envelopes. All the work was run out of my garage, which the previous homeowner had turned into a recreation room, complete with astroturf, telephone, toilet, and sink. Volunteers were there Monday through Friday from 6 to 10 p.m. and all day Saturday and Sunday writing names of voters on envelopes. On average there were five people working in the garage each day. One regular volunteer would bring her fourteen-year-old daughter because she felt it was part of her responsibility as a parent to teach her how government worked. Most of the volunteers were people I had known from my work with BAYMEC.
The volunteer operation was the aspect of the campaign with which I had the least involvement. For one thing, I was too busy raising money and meeting people, and for another I was not good at handling volunteers. I was blessed to have my good friend Leslee Hamilton as my campaign coordinator. She had worked for many years as the canvass supervisor for a political organization and knew how to deal with different personality types. Throughout the campaign I never once had to worry about whether the volunteers were happy or had enough to do. There was no sniping, no backstabbing, no rebellions, a feat which many political campaigns—gay or straight—cannot claim.
One of the primary volunteer efforts was to do neighbor-to neighbor letters. These were one-page letters that detailed my qualifications and goals targeted by neighborhood. I broke down my area into sixteen different neighborhoods, then asked a friend living in each one if I could use his or her name. Next, our computer programmer printed the person’s name and address on a letterhead. Each letter was the same except that the first Iine differed by neighborhood. Then, volunteers hand-addressed the envelopes. One glorious night, the last of 12,000 letters was folded, sealed, stamped, and ready to go. They were mailed six days before the election and arrived in people’s mailboxes the next day.
As it turned out, the neighbor-to-neighbor letters were enormously effective, mainly because they looked like personalized mail from a neighbor, not campaign literature. People must have read them because when I was walking precincts many people said, “I got a letter from someone down the street telling me about you.”
Another successful aspect of the campaign was the lawn and street signs. The colors we chose were lavender and white—lavender being the color identified with gay pride. About 150 people agreed to put signs on their lawns, which was a high number for any campaign. Even the mayor of San Jose, Susan Hammer, put out a sign in front of her house. In addition, I put up 500 street signs on telephone poles, fences, and atop traffic signs. Every now and then, I would be driving and see a wave of lavender with my name on it and think, “You’re really out there with being gay, Ken.” Sometimes this would make me nervous, believing I could be a victim of a hate crime. Only once since I was elected was my house a target, in a poorly executed toilet paper and egg attack.
The campaign was a three-month endurance race, not unlike a marathon. In the afternoons when I came back from teaching, I would either walk a precinct, write thank-you letters, or answer a group’s questionnaire. There were always two or three events to attend in the evenings. Late at night, I would grade papers or prepare my lectures for the next day.
As a child, I had a severe stuttering problem and l didn’t talk much until I began to overcome the speech impediment in the fourth grade. As I grew older, I became more comfortable with writing than with speaking. As a consequence, I was never a good public speaker. However, giving speeches is part of the job description for a politician, so I had to learn how to give an effective political speech. By asking friends what they thought of my talks, I learned what I needed to include, such as information on the community colleges, duties of a trustee, and my work in the gay community. People told me that I needed to say more about who was, so I included personal background. Through this process I discovered what most politicians already know: A good speaker is not born, he or she is made. It was not until well into the second month of the campaign that I got the stump speech memorized so I would not have to panic when I stood in front of a group.
Even though I became physically exhausted near the end of the campaign, I was never emotionally drained. As the candidate, I was the center of attention. People were putting on fund-raisers for me, donating money, and singing my praises. These activities would always revive my spirits.
Throughout the campaign I was continually inspired by the actions of others. I know it took courage for some people to put up a lawn sign for a candidate who neighbors might know was gay. Often these were older men who led closeted lives and whom I met only because friends invited them to fund-raising parties at their homes. Sometimes one person in a couple wanted to put up a sign but the other one did not, fearing what people might say. Eventually the sign went up because they were willing to do their small part to help me win. I am sure there were other acts of bravery that involved people coming out, most of which I will never know about.
One disappointment I experienced in the campaign was the failure of the progressive community to see the value in electing a qualified gay candidate. Because my main opponent had been involved in union politics, several organizations and individuals endorsed us both. From my perspective, they failed to see the importance of doing a single endorsement of an openly gay man over a liberal heterosexual male. All things being equal, it was time that the gay community had representation, much as women and other minority groups now do.
One group that failed to understand this was a local women’s group. As I mentioned at their candidates’ forum, for almost twenty years I had worked to get women candidates elected to office, and I had attended many of their events over the years. In my role with BAYMEC, I made sure that we built coalitions with women’s groups and that we endorsed women candidates because it increased diversity among elected officials. Moreover, my efforts helped a group of women that is often overlooked: lesbians. I added that I had done considerable research on women and family issues at Stanford. Despite this, the group dual-endorsed one of my opponents and me, because they said that he was good on women’s issues too.
Finally election day came. In the morning, there was nothing more to write, deliver, stamp, or seal, so I went jogging. Later, I heard on the radio that George Bush also went running. I laughed, amused that election-day jogging was the only thing that Bush and I had in common. l then went to vote.
The first results that came in were the absentee voters. I had sent all absentee voters a special mailing that they received prior to getting their absentee ballots. I assumed that none of the other candidates had thought of this, so I was not surprised that I did well with these voters. lt was not until after midnight that I learned I had won, racking up 40 percent of the vote—a phenomenal percentage given that six people were in the race. Everyone was flabbergasted. One explanation for the landslide was that many people knew me from two decades of community work. Because it was a low-profile race, the opinion of these people carried much weight with their spouses and friends. The lawn signs, the three pieces of mail, and the precinct walking all helped me to win with an impressive total.
I was not ready for all the attention I received afterward. As the first openly gay elected person in Santa Clara County, I was interviewed by radio and television stations, although not by the local newspaper, which I thought would be the only coverage I would get. I received many calls and letters from friends congratulating me. One friend in the East called to say he heard about my victory on CNN. Flowers arrived. The only time since then that I was happier was a month later when I was sworn in as a trustee. A picture taken of me at the ceremony captured the widest smile physically possible.
My first six months as a trustee of the San Jose/Evergreen Community College District were a whirlwind of activity. I put in many extra hours, just as I had done with all my activities beginning with junior high school. It seemed that every other day there was a meeting to attend. I viewed these meetings as opportunities because the more people I got to know, the more information I gained about the district, and the better able I was to bring about meaningful change through understanding the issues and building coalitions with groups and board members.
As a result of my efforts, I believe significant progress was made in a relatively short time, demonstrating why it is important to elect lesbians and gays to office. Achievements continue to happen, but here is a brief record of my first term.
My top campaign issue was to raise standards so students get the quality education needed to compete for well-paying jobs. As chair of the Committee on Academic Excellence and Comprehensiveness, I believe we have made great strides in improving academic standards.
Another of my campaign issues was to have the college district work with high schools and San Jose State University to create a unified educational system. The district now has joint programs with K-12 districts and San Jose State University.
The current library system was inadequate and inefficient. I successfully advocated for the board to allocate monies to install a library automation system similar to the one at San Jose State University, bringing the libraries into the modern age.
The district had no recycling program. Today, our district makes a concerted effort to recycle whenever possible.
I convinced the Board of Trustees to vote to have the district divest nearly $2 in million from Bank of America because of its financial support to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization that openly discriminates against gays.
I directed the personnel department to research the cost of offering domestic partnership benefits to employees. After a report showed that the cost would be minimal, the board approved the benefits, making us the second public agency in the county to do so.
At my request, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department is doing free HIV testing on the campuses.
Four years after my election, I ran for state assembly. Because of term limits, the incumbent could not run, creating a vacancy in the heavily Democratic, multiethnic Twenty-Third Assembly District. It was an ideal set for me because my community college district was wholly contained in the assembly district. I knew the area well and many of the residents had already voted for me. There were three others in the March 1996 Democratic primary: Mike Honda, a Santa Clara County Supervisor; David Cortese, son of the incumbent assemblyman; and Patricia Martinez Roach, a school trustee.
I ran on a platform of education reform. This was an important issue for residents of the district because of the high education levels needed for employment in Silicon Valley. Of all the candidates, I was the only one who had a vision and a plan to improve preschools, elementary and secondary schools, community colleges, and four-year universities.
It was a perfectly executed campaign, built upon the foundation of my first one. I was able to raise the $250,000 needed to run a viable campaign. This was achieved by holding numerous large fund-raisers over a year’s time, having forty people sponsor house parties, and receiving checks from over 1,500 individuals.
I was blessed with an army of 400 dedicated and talented volunteers. These friends walked 100 precincts, phoned thousands of voters, addressed 30,000 envelopes, stuffed tens of thousands of letters, registered hundreds of voters, hung hundreds of doorhangers on election eve, and stood on the streets election morning with banners blaring “Yeager for Assembly.” I could not have asked for a finer group of volunteers.
I received most of the endorsements, including that of the San Jose Mercury. The officeholders who supported me included two members of Congress, numerous council members, state assembly members, county supervisors, school superintendents, and school trustees. Some of the groups that endorsed me were the Sierra Club, the South Bay AFL-CIO, California Federation of Teachers, National Women’s Political Caucus, National Organization of Women, and the San Jose Firefighters.
All along, I knew that Supervisor Honda’s name recognition was formidable. For me to win, the other two candidates had to take a sizable block of support away from him, particularly in East San Jose, which was their base of support. If my three opponents could divide up East San Jose, l could win by outdistancing them elsewhere.
Until the last week of the campaign, this scenario was playing itself out. All four of us had the finances to stay competitive. While we each had different strategies, we all were running viable campaigns. Then things turned ugly. Cortese mailed out a classic hit piece against me. It was vicious, distorted my record, and arrived in the campaign’s final week. Moreover, it explicitly fed into society’s view that gay men were antifamily.
Most hit pieces are quickly forgotten after the election. Not so in this case. Because the piece was so homophobic, its repercussions continue to haunt Cortese, Phil Giarrizzo, the consultant who designed it, and David Binder, his pollster.
On one side of the 8½ x 11 flyer were three photographs. Under a photo of a policeman read the sentence, “Cut funding for police.” Under an anguished-looking woman read, “Oppose rights for rape victims.” Under a young boy in a Scout uniform read, “Outlaw the Boy Scouts.” On the opposite side in large bold letters it read, “These are Ken Yeager’s positions. Are they yours?” Then, “If you put your family first, watch out for Ken Yeager. He’s an ultraliberal who fights for his agenda, not yours.” After a brief discussion of the accusations, the piece ended with, “Put San Jose Families First. Vote No on Ken Yeager.”
The facts were distorted, of course. The piece said that I wanted to outlaw the Boy Scouts from San Jose schools. However, the issue was never one of outlawing the Scouts from school facilities. Rather, because the Scouts discriminate based on sexual orientation I fought against public funding of a Scouts’ program in a school district.
Cortese stated that I opposed mandatory AIDS testing for rape suspects. ln fact, l took a stand against an emotionally charged 1987 bill to require such testing because it was a political ploy by Republicans to find cracks in California’s AIDS confidentiality laws. The bill was not about health or about medical or emotional needs of women who are victims of rape. Health officials opposed the bill for this reason.
Lastly, the statement that I voted to cut police protection at the San Jose/Evergreen College District was false. To offset budget cuts at the state level, I supported the chancellor’s proposal to eliminate an administrative staff person in the police department office. The issue was never one of cutting police officers.
Cortese and his consultant initially said that they did not engage in gay bashing. I disagreed, as did most people who saw the piece. For me, the message of the mailer was obvious: people who fight for the rights of lesbians and gays are a threat to families. Although I was not being personally attacked for being gay, my record had been distorted to confirm people’s prejudices that gay people were a menace because they put their own agenda before the concerns of rape victims, children, and ultimately society. My “agenda” over two decades of community work had been education, good neighborhoods, and many other issues beneficial to families of all sorts.
I agreed with my veteran consultants, Carol Beddo and Joy Alexiou, that the less media focus on the piece the better. We knew that each time the voters heard the allegations that I lost votes. Our main response was to quickly send out a mailer criticizing several votes Cortese had made while on the school board.
To my mind, the Mercury reporter who had been assigned to cover the campaign, De Tran, played right into the hands of Cortese’s consultant. It was the front-page story in the local section, complete with a sidebar restating the charges. The local TV station ran a full story. All told, more people heard about the piece from the media than had received it in the mail.
The last week of any campaign is pure hell anyway, but it was made even more so by the hit piece. With twenty years of fighting in the political trenches, I consider myself a veteran campaigner. But as I walked door-to-door, I knew the piece had distorted my position and that some voters were now viewing me (and perhaps other gay people) in a negative light. My years of working to make San Jose a better place to live seemed to have been overshadowed.
I came in second place. Cortese, with his well-known family name, finished third, barely outdistancing the last-place finisher. Word on the street was that the hit piece probably turned voters away from Cortese and me and gave them to Supervisor Honda, who led in the polls going into the final week.
In the months following the campaign, I came to know the personal trauma that Giarrizzo, Binder, and Cortese have experienced because of the piece. Each deeply regrets his involvement in it. It is their story that I want to tell.
Shortly after the campaign, Phil Giarrizzo asked to come before the Harvey Milk Gay and Lesbian Democratic Club in San Francisco to explain his position on the piece. The president of the Milk Club then called me and asked if I would attend.
Perhaps Giarrizzo had asked to speak because gay Democratic leaders had been circulating a resolution to hold accountable candidates and their consultants who had used homophobic tactics against their opponents. Perhaps he just needed to ask for forgiveness. In any case, the man I saw at the meeting looked as if he was carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders.
Giarrizzo began by saying that for the last three months he had felt like (in his own words) shit. He admitted that he had committed the major sin of campaign politics by showing poor judgment. He said the piece clearly went over the line, that he accepted full responsibility, and that he wanted to personally apologize to me.
He then proceeded to rationalize his actions. He stated that as a consultant it was his job to win at any cost. He also said that the campaign’s gay pollster had reviewed the piece and had not criticized it. Several times he said that although there is a line in campaigns that should not be crossed; he was unsure where that line is.
I then gave my interpretation of the piece, pointing out its misrepresentations and its homophobic message. As an aside, I mentioned that I was uncomfortable with him partially blaming the gay pollster, as if a gay man’s complicity somehow justified mailing out the piece.
Several audience members made insightful comments. One person commented that most people learn at an early age where the line between right and wrong is drawn, be it from family, church, or synagogue. What concerned her most about his talk was that he lacked that internal gauge.
Another speaker talked about the high rate of suicide among gay and lesbian youth. In poignant terms, he explained how a troubled teenager might have seen the hit piece on his family’s kitchen table, sending him another negative signal that gay people are depraved. It could be one more piece of evidence for the teen that he was inherently amoral and should not keep living.
Giarrizzo seemed shaken by the speaker’s words. After revealing that he had a gay sister living in San Jose who had not spoken to him since the piece was mailed, he concluded somberly that it would not be easy for him to live with the fact that he might be responsible for someone’s suicide.
David Binder, Cortese’s pollster, is a well-known San Francisco consultant who has worked for numerous gay and straight candidates. I was told of Binder’s role in the campaign by Cortese in the first conversation we had shortly after the campaign. Cortese, too, had tried throwing blame on Binder by saying that a gay man had not objected to the piece. Because Binder is an acquaintance of mine, I felt comfortable calling him to find out if what Cortese had said was true. Binder confirmed that it was.
Binder’s complicity seems hardest to explain. As a gay activist, he should have known better. Over the phone, he told me that he saw his role in the campaign strictly as a consultant. He did not think it was his place to judge whether the piece should be sent but only if it accurately reflected the data from the polls. Although disturbed about the piece, he had kept silent. Binder has done much soul-searching since the piece went out, and he regrets his actions. Next time, he says, he will not stay quiet.
Five months after the election, I received a second call from Cortese asking if we could get together. I could tell from the tone of his voice that this would be an altogether different conversation from the first, when he was still defending the overall intent of the piece.
Over lunch, Cortese apologized profusely for the piece and confided that he would always carry the burden of his actions with him. He had been taught by the Jesuits at Bellarmine I High School in San Jose that there exists a window of opportunity for a person to make the right moral choice. When he first saw the piece, he knew it was wrong but did not speak out. It was a decision he would always regret.
Although he didn’t initially consider the piece as gay-bashing, he had come to understand from conversations with several people that it was. It was wrong, Cortese said, to accuse someone of being antifamily solely because he is gay.
Cortese revealed that on the day the piece arrived he did not want to walk precincts. He was ashamed of himself for sending the piece and expected to be reprimanded as he went door-to-door. In addition, his wife, who was unaware of the piece before it was sent, did not approve of it.
In talks with close friends after the election Cortese realized that people were beginning to view him differently. In fact, Cortese’s best friend asked for an explanation. A counselor who works with gay and lesbian youth at the East Side Union School District where Cortese serves as an elected trustee asked if he now was going to oppose the program. Cortese began to think of the many cousins he has in his large extended family. He realized the likelihood that some could be gay or lesbian. I wondered if they changed their view of him, too.
His eyes welling with tears, Cortese said he wished he could apologize to everyone who had seen the piece and say how sorry he was. He worried thal in some way the piece could contribute to the antigay climate that was fueling the religious right’s attempt to overturn a domestic partner registry recently passed by the Board of Supervisors. He asked if there was anything he could do to show his support of the gay and lesbian community.
I could tell his remorse was genuine. Although I am not a religious person, I do believe in the healing power of personal redemption. I also know that he will be able to fight homophobia in his circle of influence more effectively than anyone in the gay movement could ever do.
To better understand how I could have belier responded to the piece, I called Dave Fleischer, coordina!or of !raining for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. I had met Fleischer in 1995 when he led a two-day candidate workshop that I attended.
Fleischer explained how hit pieces against gays and lesbians fall into three categories. The first is the overt homophobic piece which states that the opponent is unfit to hold office because he or she is gay. The second is an expIicit homophobic attack. It reinforces the belief that gays have bad character. Most often the message is to protect our children. It is the hardest piece to respond to because it plays on internalized homophobia. The third is an implicit homophobic attack. These pieces say that the heterosexuaI candidate is more like the voter than the gay candidate. One candidate even sent out mailings titled “Straight Talk” just to be sure that everyone understood his point.
Fleischer said that Cortese’s piece fit into the second category because there was little I could say by way of a direct defense. Discussing the particulars would have been useless. The charge was that the candidate is a bad person. Therefore, the only response is to show that the candidate has good character.
Fleischer gave two suggestions for a strategy. The first is to ask the local paper to write an editorial condemning the piece, calling it sleazy and unethical. This could be reprinted and sent to voters identified as undecided. The second is to send a piece with three testimonials: A Boy Scout or Scout leader could vouch for my support of youth programs; a husband of a rape victim or a rape victim counselor could detail my work in support of women and social service issues; and a police officer could discuss my platform on crime prevention.
Fleischer added that one reason why antigay attacks can be so effective is that voters have not yet become as desensitized to them as they are about candidates’ immoral or unethical behavior. It is not such a big story the second time around. In that sense, Bill Clinton is the beneficiary of the intense media coverage given to Gary Hart’s infidelities. Likewise, the next time a homophobic piece is mailed in San Jose it will have less effect.
Hit pieces will always be a part of a candidate’s arsenal. Despite their dislike from all quarters, they are enormously effective, which is why they will continue to be used. However, as Cortese and his consultant and pollster realized, there are I ines that should not be crossed when it comes to personal attacks based on race, gender, or sexual orientation.
ln ways that political insiders and journalists have never explored, there can be a long-term psychological price to pay for waging such attacks. These hit pieces reinforce society’s worst stereotypes and can do untold harm to members of the assaulted group. The stakes are higher than just the outcome of a single election. In this regard, the knowledge that one has done irreparable harm will live on long after the campaign is over.
My assembly race did not preclude me from running for a second term on the community college board. I was unopposed in the November 1996 election. This allowed me to serve for another four years without having to again ask my friends for their money and time. For this, they were as eternally thankful as I was.
©1999 Haworth Press