Openly Gay vs. Solidly Pro-Gay: Tierney-Tisei Showdown on the North Shore

Congressman John F. Tierney during a recent debate.
Photo credit: Chuck Colbert

Congressman John F. Tierney during a recent debate.
Photo credit: Chuck Colbert

By: Chuck Colbert /TRT Reporter–

Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank’s retirement this year does not necessarily mean the Bay State is losing a gay House member.

If Richard Tisei, a former 25-year state lawmaker and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor, prevails in a close congressional race, Massachusetts will make LGBT history once again – sending the first out non-incumbent Republican to Capitol Hill.

Openly gay since he came out publicly in the Boston Globe in November 2009, Tisei, 50, is a pro-choice Republican who has refused to sign the Grover Norquist no-new-tax pledge.

Pro-small business, Tisei has been with his partner, Bernie Starr, for 18 years. Together, they own a real estate brokerage company.

A self-styled “fiscal conservative and libertarian on social issues,” he is not the ordinary face of the far-too-often overtly antagonistic, anti-gay, GOP. “I believe the government should get off your back, out of your wallet, and away from the bedroom,” Tisei said during a recent telephone interview.

During a press conference last month, when the Tisei campaign rolled out several local Democrats who endorsed him, this reporter asked, “Why would a gay Democrat vote for you, in effect giving Speaker John Boehner [of Ohio] another vote to advance an arguably hostile agenda? How would you stand up to the national Republican hostility to LGBT rights and gay equality?”

“First of all, there are a lot of issues in the country,” Tisei responded, citing “$16 trillion in debt, every dollar borrowing 40 cents from China, with 23 million people who are out of jobs, either unemployed or underemployed. We need leadership to get the country back on track.

“But on the issue of equality, I have a track record standing up and saying everyone should be treated equally under the law,” he said.

As a state senator Tisei backed same-sex marriage, voicing immediate support for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in Goodridge. He also co-sponsored legislation, which has now become law, adding “gender expression” and “gender identity” to the state’s civil rights and hate crimes provisions.

And yet, Tisei’s opponent, Democratic Representative John F. Tierney, 61, has a solid pro gay-rights record in his own right. So much so that the Human Rights Campaign political action committee, which has endorsed Tierney, gives the 16-year incumbent a near perfect 99 percent average scorecard rating.

Still, Tisei said, “You will never have full equality in this country unless you have members of both parties who are willing to stand up and say every American should be treated equally, and it becomes a settled issue.”

Accordingly, the nonpartisan Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund has endorsed Tisei.

“I do think that being gay and in the [Republican] caucus, I will be able to change hearts and minds,” he said.

To be sure, Tisei is in a tight race with an eight-term incumbent. A recent Globe poll showed Tisei leading Tierney by a 37 percent to 31 percent margin, but with 30 percent of respondents still undecided.

Last weekend, Rothenberg Political Report reclassified the race to “Lean Republican” after weeks of a “Toss-up” rating.

Family problems

Tierney’s re-election difficulties stem from family matters. His brothers-in-law running of an illegal gambling operation has haunted him. Tierney’s wife, Patrice, pleaded guilty to “willful blindness” for her role in overseeing the finances of the $1 million a year, off-shore gaming operation, which the congressman believed to be legal. Patrice Tierney served a one-month prison sentence last year and agreed to a guilty plea for tax fraud.

Tierney has been not been charged with any wrongdoing. “There is a clear statement from the judge that I was not involved in any way or shape,” said Tierney during an interview in his campaign headquarters.

But Tisei and congressional Republican leadership, namely Boehner, along with Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, and other GOP “Young Guns and Tea Party extremists, aligned with [my] opponent, don’t talk about that,” Tierney said. Instead, “they’ve spent millions of dollars, raising doubts” about his judgment and integrity.

The outside conservative group YG Action has poured more than $1 million into TV ads attacking Tierney’s ties to the brothers-in-law gambling ring.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has also financed ads on Tisei’s behalf, attacking Tierney.

And Tisei has received financial backing from high-profile gay conservatives, including Ken Mehlman, former Republican National Committee chairman, according the Washington Post.

For his part, Tierney has struck back, linking Tisei to the Tea Party and an extreme right-wing GOP agenda.

At the same time, Tierney has lined up backing from the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation, including Barney Frank, along with former HRC executive director and Attleboro native Joe Solmonese, other LGBT activists from the district, and organizational backing from Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists Network. Earlier this month The Rainbow Times endorsed Tierney.

But Tierney lags in fundraising. Just this week, the Globe reported Tierney had raised $500,000 in the third quarter compared to $660,000 for Tisei. The latest round of campaign finance reports filed on Monday, the Globe noted, showed Tierney with $424,000 in the bank and Tisei with $308,000.

Clearly, Republican Party strategists see an opportunity to pick up a House seat in the Massachusetts 6th Congressional District, situated on the North Shore of greater Boston.

Tisei has LGBT supporters in the district. One of them is Harry Ricker of Wakefield, who attended Tisei’s press conference and identifies as dual-sex attracted.

For 12 years, “I’ve voted for Democrats, except for Richard,” he said, adding even when voting that way, “I knew Rich was a good person. He cares about the people and is a down-to-earth guy. I really respect that.”

A Tisei win would give the GOP its first House seat in Massachusetts in 16 years.

That prospect concerns some gay rights leaders and congressional district residents.

“I’ve never been impressed with Tisei’s credentials as an advocate for gay people,” said Salem resident and retired college professor Pat Gozemba, author of the 2007 book, Courting Equality: A History of America’s First Same-Sex Marriages.

“He was never, as far as I am concerned, out as a gay legislator in Massachusetts until he decided he was going to run for lieutenant governor,” she said during a telephone interview.

“There is no question in my mind that people know Tisei was gay, but I spent a fair amount of time at the Statehouse,” Gozemba said. “We wrote Courting Equality not knowing Richard Tisei was gay.”

Gozemba wholeheartedly backs Tierney, her congressman. “He has been great, totally great,” she said, referring to Tierney’s support of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act, as well as his sensitivity and compassion on immigration issues for bi-national couples and HIV/AIDS funding and treatment.

“There has never been a thing that we wanted in the LGBT community that he hasn’t been supportive of, or that he did not deliver, absolutely,” added Gozemba.

Arline Isaacson, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, a leading lobbying organization on Beacon Hill during the state’s three-year same-sex marriage battle, voiced praise and concern.

“I like Rich Tisei a lot, enjoyed working with him over the years, and very much appreciate his support in the marriage fight,” she said in a phone interview. “If he were running for an open seat, then the calculus would be different, very different.”

“But he is running against an incumbent with a perfect voting record on gay issues,” Isaacson explained. “How can we turn our back on an incumbent with so good a record? Historically, the gay community has stood with legislators who have stood with us. Period.”

Early anti-gay votes

Congressional candidate Richard Tisei at a recent press conference.
Photo credit: Chuck Colbert

Isaacson also recalled Tisei’s early votes against gay rights in the legislature.

For example, as a state representative in 1989, Tisei voted against final passage of a bill that became law that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, public accommodations, housing, and credit.

A year later, Tisei also voted to prohibit the Department of Social Services from placing children with gay or lesbian foster parents. His vote included support for an amendment stating, “A homosexual or bisexual orientation shall be considered an obstacle the psychological well-being of a child,” according to the Massachusetts State House Roll Call Vote.

In the phone interview, Tisei voiced regrets about both those votes. “If I could take that vote back, I would do it in a minute,” he said referring to the vote against the gay rights bill.

“It was a mistake to vote that way” on foster care, Tisei added.

“Those votes came up when I was a member of the House,” he explained. “I served as a member of the Senate for 20 years. When I got to the Senate one of my first votes was for the setting up of the Gay and Lesbian Youth Commission. I voted consistently for funding of that program. I also spoke on the floor of the Senate in favor of domestic partnership benefits for state employees.”

“People have evolved. The president has evolved,” Tisei said, referring to President Barack Obama’s full support earlier this year for same-sex marriage.

Looking ahead

If elected, what can LGBT voters and constituents count on from Tisei or Tierney?

“I want to be seen as someone who is involved in the issues of the day who happens to be gay,” said Tisei. “When issues come up that are important to the LGBT community, I will be standing up with the LGBT community and be happy to push them.”

“I’ve met with the Speaker and told him that we are not going to agree on every issue,” Tisei added. “Ask John Tierney if he has ever had that conversation with [former House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi.”

“If the Democrats were to regain control of the House,” what can the gay community expect, this reporter asked Tierney.

“I have a full commitment from Nancy Pelosi,” said Tierney. “I had this conversation with her. If we get the majority back, we will pass ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would ban workplace bias based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression].”

Tierney went on to say that senior Democrat, U.S Representative George Miller, a California Democrat, serving on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, “will move ENDA through that committee, get it to the floor, and get ENDA passed.”

Added Tierney, “If the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t clear up DOMA, we are going to do that,” too.

Asked Tierney, “So where is Boehner’s commitment on that?”

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