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[September 17, 2006]

Voters: Sexuality is and isn't an issue

(Record, The (Stockton, CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Sep. 17--STOCKTON -- If elected, Susan Eggman would be the first openly gay politician that anyone -- from historians to politicians to consultants to political observers -- could remember ever serving on the Stockton City Council. And in central Stockton, even in the conservative Central Valley, it is hard to find many people who care.

Eggman was walking door to door recently when she came to the Atlee Street home of Laura Dwyer, 60, a Republican and a Catholic who is originally from Ohio -- not the sort of voter demographic that would appear at first glance to be a sure bet for Eggman.

But Dwyer liked Eggman's handshake and what she said about fixing crime and broken sidewalks in central Stockton's District 5.

That Eggman is a lesbian did not come up in their conversation, and when Dwyer was asked about it later, she said that Eggman's being gay is a nonissue.

But being gay does matter to both gay rights advocates -- such as the Washington, D.C.-based Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports and recruits gay candidates, gave Eggman $2,500 -- and to their anti-gay rights equivalents, who oppose Eggman on biblical grounds.

It matters to some voters, too, said Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. A candidate's race still matters to some voters. Even having an unusual name counts, he said. "For some voters, like (the Rev.) Lou Sheldon, being gay is a very important issue."

Sheldon is the founder of the Traditional Values Coalition, an Anaheim-based Christian organization at the front of anti-gay rights lobbying nationwide. He said that even on the council, a municipal body that rarely rules on social issues, Eggman would represent an effort to "remove the heterosexual ethic of one man and one woman as husband and wife."

He said one reason it is wise to oppose gay people when they first run for office is to prevent them from gaining the support necessary to win election to state office, where social issues often are decided.

At Stockton's Unity Southern Baptist Church, the Rev. Bob Hailey said neither he nor any Christian would support a gay candidate.

"It's wrong," he said. "It's an abomination before God."

Hailey's position, however, is not shared by the Rev. Mark Hall of the Episcopal Church of St. Anne. He said most of his congregation, at least, could separate personal from political issues.

"We do have something called the separation of church and state," he said.

Eggman said her reading of Christianity is that it is about inclusion, understanding and love. She said she would put her relationship with her partner of 24 years up against anyone's relationship, but she said the majority of Stockton voters are "enlightened enough to vote on issues."

David Burr, who until June was the chairman of the San Joaquin County Democratic Central Committee, said the people who care about sexual orientation might have been able to affect an election in Stockton 15 years ago. Not now, he said. "The times, they are a-changing."

The Victory Fund, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political action committee, has never before backed a candidate in Stockton, said Robin Brand, the fund's senior vice president for politics and strategy. Of the 511,000 elected offices across the nation, just 325 are held by openly gay or lesbian people, and she said the candidates the fund backs bring to the dais a diversity that is "good for all of us."

But the choice between Eggman and San Joaquin County Board of Education Trustee Beverly Foster will likely not be about sexuality, Brand said. Voters "want to know what you're going to be able to do for them," she said. "That's what matters."

Termed-out Stockton Vice Mayor Gary Giovanetti, whose seat Eggman and Foster are competing for, said Eggman's sexual orientation would not make any difference on the dais.

But he said she might have made a mistake being so open with voters, who he said might not approve.

Eggman said she doesn't care.

"I'm running on the right issues," she said. "If I lose on the wrong issues, there's not a damned thing I can do about it. But I'm not going to do it hiding."

Brand said Giovanetti was proved wrong in the District 5 primary election in June, in which Eggman finished 10 points ahead of Foster. Still, Foster is backed by Mayor Ed Chavez and Giovanetti, and she is expected to pull close to, if not overcome, Eggman in the runoff election in November.

Both Eggman and Foster said they will not make Eggman's sexual orientation a campaign topic. "This isn't a lesbian or black issue," said Foster, who is black. "It's an issue of common sense."

She and Councilman Clem Lee, who has advised her on her campaign, both bristled at a statement the Victory Fund published on its Web site, which claimed Foster "may make sexual orientation an issue in the campaign."

There is no evidence Foster has made sexual orientation an issue, nor is there any evidence that she will. Foster said she resented the statement. Lee said it was dishonest.

"It's really a lie," Lee said. "It's dishonest to speculate it, because there's no evidence whatsoever to support the claim."

Brand and Eggman said the statement said only that an attack might be made, and they said gay candidates, who often are subjected to such criticism, must be ready to respond. As an indication there is some concern, Eggman said, "I refer you back to Bob Hailey and Lou Sheldon."

Back in central Stockton, Eggman had come to Churchill Street, where she knocked on the door of Nick Tirapelle, a trucker and a Democrat who was watching the Giants on TV and could not talk: "Bases are loaded."

Later, he said he does not know which candidate he will support, but he is sure his vote will have nothing to do with Eggman being a lesbian.

"That's saying a lot for me," the 48-year-old said, recalling a time when a gay or lesbian candidate could likely not have won his support. He said he still cracks a joke now and then about being gay, but he said he has come to believe that discrimination is wrong. He grew up, he said.

Stockton has grown up, too, said Bob Benedetti, director of University of the Pacific's Jacoby Center for Regional and Community Studies. He said people do not debate whether gay and lesbian people should be allowed to park their cars or use the courts, and he said there should be no debate about their ability to serve.

"It would seem to me that the state and even the nation is beyond this," he said.

Contact reporter David Siders at (209) 943-8580 or dsiders@recordnet.com

Copyright (c) 2006, The Record, Stockton, Calif.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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