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The Elephant in the Race: Gay Republican Candidacy

Richard Tisei and Barney Frank share opposing views on how LGBT candidates can impact the Republican party.

Congressman John Tierney (D) hosted a telephone press conference Thursday afternoon with openly gay Congressman Barney Frank to discuss the 6th District race and LGBT rights.

This race has gained national attention, and not just because Republicans have a shot at grabbing a Massachusetts congressional seat. If elected, Richard Tisei (R) would be the first openly gay Republican elected to Congress.

Frank -- who recently referred to Log Cabin Republicans as "Uncle Tom" -- bluntly said Tisei, who is also openly gay, would not be able to impact the Republican party when it comes to gay rights. And that brings about the discussion of whether or not an elected official can affect change in his or her party on big issues that define that party's platform.

Working the Majority

Frank said that electing Tisei would give another seat for the Republican party, which Frank said "has moved very far to the right." If the Republican party holds the majority in the House, he added, Tisei would be another vote for Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Tisei has promised to be an independent voice and has said he disagrees with the Republican leadership on several issues, especially issues relating to gay rights and marriage equality.

"I was an advocate on the state level, I introduced legislation on the state level, I fought for equality on state level, and I'm not going to be any different on the national level," Tisei said.

Frank insists that won't matter, though. Since the House leadership chooses which legislation goes up for a vote, Frank said pro-gay rights legislation will not be put up for a vote under Republican leadership.

"If Boehner says 'I'll let a bill come up,' I'll appologize to him," Frank said. "We can call another press conference, and I'll pay for it."

Noticeably silent on the press conference call was Tierney, a longtime advocate in Congress for LGBT rights recently endorsed for reelection by the Human Rights Campaign.

Frank added that returning Democrats to the majority is the only way for that kind of legislation -- including a bill to ban discrimination against gay people in the workplace -- to have a chance.

Tisei dismissed that notion.

"There isn't an analyst in the country that says that the Democratic party is going to take back the House," Tisei said. "After the elections, the Republicans will still control the House of Representatives. And it's important to have someone in the majority from Massachusetts to help ensure that the issues people care about are brought up."

Change From Within?

If the Republicans do hold onto the majority in the House, then it's very unlikely there will be pro-LGBT rights legislation brought to the floor in the 113th Congress.

"When the Republicans bring up anti-LGBT legislation, it is true Richard Tisei will vote against it," Frank said. "If Mr. Tisei thinks he can get Boehner to bring up LBGT legislation, he's wrong and doesn't know what he's talking about."

At a earlier that morning, Tisei called for a more bipartisan Congress said that both parties need people who believe in equality for gay Americans in order for real change to happen.

"Barney Frank sees all LGBT issues to through prism of partisanship," Tisei said. "I tend to view things differently. I think you have to work with both parties, you need progress through both parties to move forward."

Tisei -- who hasn't spoken much about his sexuality since coming out in 2010, focusing on fiscal issues and -- gave a similar response when asked by a reporter at the Democrats For Tisei event that day.

But can Tisei and other gay Republicans bring about change in the party when it comes to social issues on which leadership and many voters in the party disagree with them? A Gallup poll this year showed that while gay marriage has gained support nationwide, only 22 percent of Republicans said it should be, and that is down from 28 percent the previous year. Support among Democrats was at 65 percent.

"I'm glad there are gay Republicans who try to influence them, I just don't want them to pretend to have success they don't have," Frank said.

'Cultural Lag'

But the Victory Fund -- an organization dedicated to supporting LGBT candidates for office -- has put its support behind Tisei. Frank said blanket support for gay candidates was a useful strategy 20 years ago, but times have changed.

"I was still in the closet when it started. Visibility was the key thing. I think that is no longer sensible," Frank said. "Beyond that, I think you take into account the impact. In that sense I think the Victory Fund is in a cultural lag. We used to just be grateful when people were nice to us. We've gone beyond that now."

Tisei, who lives in Wakefield with his longtime partner Bernie Starr, pointed out that when he was in the Massachusetts legislature he and then-Gov. Mitt Romney disagreed on gay marriage. In 2010, while running as gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker's running mate, Tisei co-sponsored a transgender anti-discrimination bill that Baker opposed and even dismissed as "the bathroom bill."

Frank cited Tisei's inability to persuade Romney and Baker on those issues as evidence for his point about Tisei's prospects of persuading Republican leadership on LGBT issues.

"Richard Tisei should not mislead people by suggesting he can influence John Boehner's lifelong efforts against all that we stand for," Frank insisted. "It would be great to have another gay person in Congress, but not at the price of keeping Eric Cantor as majority leader."

It would seem a stretch Tisei would be able to persuade Boehner or Cantor to support gay marriage rights. But Tisei said he is looking at the long term.

"When we started in Massachusetts years ago, all we were trying to get was domestic partnership benefits for employees, and we couldn't even get that up for a vote in the House, the Democratic leadership blocked it. But within a few years we have gay marriage, marriage equality," Tisei said. "The country is evolving. I do think that I'm at the forefront of the change that's taking place in the country. We'll start to see that change in the Republican party, and I will be one of the leaders."

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