Gay Republican Challenges Long-Time Mass. Congressman
It was standing room only at Bobby Van's Grill in downtown Washington, D.C., on Monday as former Massachusetts lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Richard Tisei greeted supporters and potential donors to his congressional campaign. He was quick to point out to them during the meet-and-greet that Washington is broken, and he is the candidate who can help fix it.
"If you're happy with the way things are right now, vote for the incumbent-re-elect him," he said. "If you really want a change and you want to change the direction that the country is going in, I'm a great choice."
Tisei, who was elected Senate minority leader in Jan. 2007, announced his candidacy against eight-term incumbent Congressman John Tierney last November. The former lieutenant gubernatorial candidate would represent Massachusetts' 6th Congressional District that includes most of the North Shore and a portion of Middlesex County on Capitol Hill if elected.
Tisei's campaign received a boost late last month with U.S. Sen. Scott Brown's endorsement. Attorney John Hudak suspended his campaign in January to promote an anti-aging supplement.
"Most people recognize that the country isn't heading in the right direction," said Tisei. "When you talk to people, they just know that something's wrong."
Tisei told EDGE in an interview during the Washington, D.C., campaign event that the economy and jobs are the issues about which voters are most concerned. As the owner of a real estate brokerage company, Tisei said he has spoken with many homeowners who have sold their homes because they lost their jobs and can no longer afford them.
"The issues that are most important to people right now is... trying to get the federal government under control, trying to get the government to be more business friendly, to help try to jump start the economy, get things moving again," he said. "Ultimately I think like the average person looks at what's going down here in Washington and they're just like 'this isn't good.'"
Republican Pinal County, Ariz., Sheriff Paul Babeu launched his congressional campaign in January, weeks before he came out after an ex-boyfriend alleged that he threatened to deport him to Mexico if he publicly disclosed their relationship. The Boston Globe reported Tisei's sexual orientation days before Charlie Baker chose him as a running mate in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
He said his homosexuality was no secret among his Beacon Hill colleagues.
"I never felt like I was in the closet," said Tisei, noting he and his partner hosted his legislative colleagues at their Wakefield home. "It was important getting into a race-especially a statewide race-that my personal life came out from me as a positive thing as opposed to being used as a negative thing. I was out and about at that point so I'd do it all over again."
Former state Sen. Jarrett Barrios, who was president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation until last June, and other legislators and marriage equality activists have credited Tisei with securing GOP support for nuptials for gays and lesbians in the commonwealth. Tisei said he has not "heard too much" about marriage on the campaign trail.
"As I've gone around and talked to people, it's not really an issue and people just accept it for what it is," he said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) continues to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and other Republican presidential candidates have pledged to reinstate the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers if elected.
"The Republican Party would be wise to go back to what our roots were," said Tisei in response to a question about whether the GOP has focused too much on defending DOMA, reinstating 'don't ask, don't tell' and opposing marriage for same-sex couples and other LGBT-specific issues. "The party was founded based on the notion that everybody should be treated equally under the law... the Republican Party was always the party that was promoting treating people fairly under the law, equal rights under the law. As a conservative message, as a Republican message that's what our party was about. As conservatives, that's what we should be promoting."
With Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe's announcement last week that she will not seek re-election, Tisei could potentially become an important vote in support of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other LGBT-specific bills on which members of the next Congress could potentially debate.
"It's always tough to vote on an issue when you know people," he said. "Just being there would make a big difference."
Tisei further stressed that ENDA and other measures will not pass without Republican support.
"For people in general, they need to recognize that we will never have true equality in our country unless we have really strong advocates on both sides of the aisle-both the Democrat and the Republican Party-who will stand up for what's right, for freedom," he said. "That's something that will come very natural to me, so I don't think I have to make any special effort, I have to just be myself. Certainly when issues come up, I will try to be a very strong advocate for treating people fairly and equally under the law."