Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Gay candidates make history competing for congressional seat

In a year where the midterm election stakes for LGBTQ people could not be higher, history is being made in a House race in New York’s 3rd Congressional District. For the first time in U.S. political history, two openly gay candidates are competing for a congressional seat that could be a game-changer in the House. 

Robert Zimmerman, 68, a communications executive and Democrat, and George Santos, 34, a Wall Street investor and Republican, are battling for an open seat in the district covering Long Island’s Oyster Bay, Glen Cove, North Hempstead and also part of northeastern Queens. The seat opened when Democratic incumbent Rep. Tom Suozzi declined to seek reelection and ran for governor.

These crucial midterm elections November 8 will decide which party has control of Congress. Traditionally, the party in the White House loses seats in the House and Senate at midterms, often shifting the power dynamic for whoever is president, making the next two years of their term difficult to pass critical legislation.

Going into midterms, the Senate is split 50/50, with Vice President Kamala Harris deciding the vote in a tie and giving Democrats the majority. The House has 224 Democrats (including 4 Delegates), 213 Republicans (including 1 Delegate and the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico), and 3 vacant seats. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose district is in San Francisco, has been a stalwart supporter of LGBTQ issues for decades and engineered the passage of the Equality Act twice, only to see it stall in the Senate. With such slender margins, every seat counts in determining who will control the House and Senate in January 2023 as the 2024 race for the White House begins.  

This year has seen the U.S. trending backwards on civil rights and civil liberties. Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills have been put forward by GOP lawmakers in legislatures in nearly every state, including blue swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. LGBTQ people have never been more at risk.  

All of which makes New York’s historic 3rd Congressional District race emblematic of the current cultural and political divide in American politics. Santos is a stalwart supporter of Donald Trump, arguably the most homophobic and transphobic president in history. Zimmerman has been dedicated to social justice causes for decades.

Robert Zimmerman, Democrat (center)

Zimmerman responded at length to Queer Forty’s questions about his political aspirations, his personal commitments and what he hoped to achieve if he wins the race. Santos refused to speak to Queer 40, despite multiple requests, while giving an interview to the conservative daily newspaper the New York Post, which put his photo at the top of their story.

For Zimmerman, this race is personal and what he told Q40 will resonate with many LGBTQ people. He said,  “As a young, closeted gay kid, I never even imagined a time when we would be able to have an openly gay person vying for a seat in Congress, let alone that I could be that person.” 

But he added that anyone who thinks all gay people have the same politics could not be more wrong. Zimmerman said, “Although we are both gay, that is where our similarities end. We are living in a moment where violent attacks on the LGBT+ community and the issues we stand for are on the rise. Republican extremists are mounting political attacks on the basic protections that we have spent decades fighting to secure. George Santos is one of those Republican extremists.”

Zimmerman said he was deeply committed to the 3rd district and that “The issues that are front-and-center in the national conversation are the issues that have defined my life. I have lived in this district since I was nine years old, and I know that these national issues will have real, concrete consequences here in Long Island. I went through our public schools here, I’ve worked for members of Congress representing this district, and I’ve built my business–now in its 33rd year—in this district.”

Zimmerman also did not mince words about the threat posed to LGBTQ people by the GOP–and that Santos is part of the problem, not the solution. He said,  “Republicans are trying to make LGBTQ+ people a target in this district, and my opponent is part of those efforts. We’ve seen this kind of bigotry, hatred, and demagoguery before, but there’s no denying that it is chilling to see this style of politics on the rise in 2022.” 

But Zimmerman also retains faith in both the district and the country at large, asserting, “I believe that there is a commanding, overwhelming majority of Americans who are just as appalled by this wave of anti-LGBT+ rhetoric and legislation as  I am, and we are ready to organize and beat back this bigotry wherever it occurs.”

George Santos, Republican (left)

Santos, while refusing to speak to a national queer publication about the race, told the often overtly anti-LGBTQ New York Post, “I think it shows that a lot of what the media puts out there that Republicans are homophobic and not accepting is just not true. I have plenty of support from the local Republican party. I have been nominated twice in a row with no opposition.” 

Santos, who is married, does not address LGBTQ issues on his website. Zimmerman does. Zimmerman said, “Experience is an issue in this campaign. Look at my track record and you’ll see I’ve spent year after year fighting to make this a better place to live and standing up for my principles. In his short time in the public eye, George Santos has amassed a staggering list of incendiary statements and dangerous positions. Call it wisdom or just better judgement, but I’ve been around long enough to say that this district deserves better than a candidate who compares abortion rights to slavery or bails out January 6th defendants.”

Cesar Toledo, Political Director for the Victory Fund. a political action committee dedicated to increasing the number of openly LGBTQ public officials in the U.S., was forthright about Santos’s candidacy and how problematic it is for LGBTQ people. Victory Fund has endorsed Zimmerman.

Toledo said, “Santos said abortion is barbaric. He praised [Florida governor] Ron DeSantis’ ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which is antithetical to our freedom.  He’s an election denier who bragged about supporting insurrectionists.” 

Toledo said of the race, “This seat is nested in Long Island and Queens, voted for Biden by 8 points and Politico said the seat leans Democratic.” He added that the seat is “key to increasing our LGBTQ presence in the House as well as our representation.”

While the seat leans Democrat, polls show the Zimmerman/Santos face-off is one of the most competitive in the country. September polling ranks the race a dead heat, with  Zimmerman at 42%, Santos at 41% and  14% still undecided.

Politics shift radically in districts during midterms–there’s no guarantee of a Democratic win anymore as we’ve seen. Mondaire Jones, the first Black man elected to the House in 2020 was defeated in the primary, which means come January, that Black gay representation is gone.

Mondaire Jones was defeated in the primary

Toledo said, “So much is at stake this November. We need Zimmerman, who values our community, equality and choice. The future of marriage equality hangs in the balance.” 

He said, “Santos is a disgrace” for his political views about LGBTQ rights at a time when “there’s an astronomical and scary number of bills, specifically targeting the trans community” being promoted by the GOP.

Zimmerman highlighted the differences between him and his opponent, explaining, “George Santos’s website doesn’t mention LGBT+ rights because he defends and supports members of the Republican Party who are directly and increasingly hostile to those rights. This is a person who proudly supports Ron DeSantis’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida and said that people on the left ‘want to groom our kids.’” 

He added, “Santos is proud of his friendships with homophobes like Margery Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. If you’re looking for someone ready to stand up to anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry, Santos is not the representative you want.”

When asked how he would help LGBT+ people if elected—a question Santos has never answered in debates or media—Zimmerman said, “I will continue the work I’ve done for my entire life. That includes standing up to extremist Republican assaults on Americans of all sexual orientations. We are going to beat back this kind of antiquated bigotry. We aren’t going back, and I plan to help move us forward.” 

Zimmerman emphasized the importance of passing legislation and addressing LGBTQ issues in a legislative body. He said, “We need to pass the Equality Act, to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. I will support that bill, and I will prioritize legislation to end housing discrimination, confront the epidemic of homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth, and end the inhumane practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy’ once and for all.” 

Toledo noted that this is a banner year for candidates like Zimmerman—“Diverse, intersectional candidacies that includes people of all walks of life who have stepped up to run.” 

He added that despite :the partisan nature of our politics,” there is a “beautiful movement” of LGBTQ candidates who “advocate for issues” integral to the queer and trans communities.

There are at least 1,050 LGBTQ candidates this year, the most in history. The last record was 2020 when 1,006 LGBTQ people ran for office. In addition to the House race, there are a few other races that could also make history. 

Victory Fund Press Secretary Albert Fujii told Queer Forty that “Maura Healey running in Massachusetts and Tina Kotek running in Oregon would be the nation’s first lesbian governors.” 

Fujii said, “Maura is currently the Attorney General of Massachusetts, a position she’s held since 2014 when she became the nation’s first LGBTQ state Attorney General.”

He explained that Tina Kotek has a long history in state office. “Tina served in the Oregon state House until she announced her gubernatorial run. She was first elected to the state House in 2006 and then made history in 2013 when she because the first lesbian Speaker of any state House in the country. She served as Speaker from 2013 until 2022.”

Toledo said that while a record number of candidates are running for office, “We still have a long way to go. We are seven percent of the population which means we need 35,000 more candidates elected to offices to have full representation.”

Achieving that equitability requires LGBTQ taking risks, says Toledo, noting that local candidates are essential—not just high profile races like the Zimmerman/Santos battle. He said that “local candidates matter” and “that’s the beginning of the pipeline” to reaching that goal of representation. 

Victoria A. Brownworth

Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated and Society of Professional Journalists Award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.

Victoria A. Brownworth has 42 posts and counting. See all posts by Victoria A. Brownworth

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