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Don't ask, because Mark Foley won't tell

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published June 1, 2003

It's a basic political premise: Get in front of a potentially damaging story before it overwhelms you. That's certainly what Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Foley had in mind when the five-term congressman called an unusual press conference recently.

Reports that he's gay are about to spread from alternative and gay media outlets to major Florida newspapers, Foley said. He blamed Democratic activists for spreading the rumor and decried the "repulsive" campaign tactic.

He wanted reporters to know that he won't answer questions about his sexuality; it has nothing to do with his candidacy.

Don't ask, won't tell.

It's an awkward issue not only for the 48-year-old Foley, who is running for Bob Graham's Senate seat in 2004. Journalists covering his campaign are wrestling with the relevancy of the gay question. So is the Republican Party, increasingly struggling to balance a desire for tolerance and inclusiveness with conservative views of family values.

This is new and uncomfortable political ground, and a lot of Republican activists acknowledge they have no idea how it will play out.

"Is it relevant? I'm not sure I have the answer," said Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas GOP. "If I were hiring someone for a job, absolutely not. But there's something about public service and public policy that makes this different somehow. We have not as a party in Florida had to face this question yet, and we may have to shortly."

The national party is grappling too. When Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania made an analogy between homosexuality and incest and bestiality, some Republicans complained the party didn't repudiate him strongly enough. Others complained the party didn't defend him adequately.

And Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot infuriated some conservative groups by meeting in March with the Human Rights Campaign, a group that lobbies for legal protections for gays and which has contributed $20,000 to Foley's political action committee since 2000.

In Florida Foley did succeed in getting control of the budding story, sort of. He rounded up prominent conservatives, from Gov. Jeb Bush to U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, to tout his strong Republican record.

But his damage control effort pushed whispers that most media had ignored for months into newspapers across the state (his hometown paper, the Palm Beach Post, opted not to report on his news conference). It made CNN and the Bill O'Reilly show.

He also managed to infuriate some gay activists for his denunciation of people trying to "slur me" with the gay rumor.

Norm Kent, publisher of Florida's largest gay newspaper, the Express in Broward County, is a longtime liberal activist. But he had expected to endorse Foley, who has generally had a strong voting record on anti-discrimination and hate crime bills protecting gays and lesbians. That changed when he read about Foley's conference call with Florida reporters.

"If homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of, what's "repulsive' about discussing one's sexuality?" asked Kent. "It's obvious he's trying to placate part of his party by selectively choosing his words in a way that's harmful and denigrating to the gay community."

Kent asked another question: Would Tom DeLay, an evangelical Christian, rally to the defense of an openly gay Republican candidate?

Many conservative voters will only accept a gay politician "as long as he appears to not be happy about it," U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., told Slate.com after Foley's news conference.

Frank, who steered clear of addressing the question of Foley's sexuality, is one of three openly gay members of Congress (along with U.S. Reps. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz). All acknowledged their homosexuality after winning congressional seats and have been re-elected. No openly gay nonincumbent has successfully run for Congress.

Indeed, many Republicans in Florida last week were speculating about whether even questions about Foley's sexuality will kill his chances in the Republican primary. Christian conservatives are not a huge force in Florida politics, but they are a force nonetheless and many Christian conservatives see homosexuality as immoral.

State Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, seemed to sum up the Florida GOP comfort zone on the gay question last week. He's not buying into the reports about Foley. "Just because you're single doesn't mean you have a different lifestyle."

At the same time, Wise is confident that an openly gay candidate could never win a statewide Republican primary in Florida.

"I think the standards of family values are pretty strong in the Republican Party," Wise said. "The issue is we're looking for candidates who have good family values and care about the family."

Foley's only announced primary challenger, former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum (whose media adviser is openly gay) said he sees no issue. Likewise, Gov. Bush dismissed potential damage to Foley, citing his strong conservative voting record.

"People vote for people - not private issues," Bush said. "Sexual preference is not a defining character issue."

Still, the Florida GOP is finding that a big tent philosophy makes some party faithful uneasy. While Foley blamed Democrats for spreading rumors about him, virtually everybody mentioning the issue to this newspaper before his news conference was Republican.

Last year, Patrick Howell, an openly gay self-described Reagan conservative, ran for an Orlando-area state legislative seat being vacated by Republican Allen Trovillion. Trovillion, a social conservative, endorsed the Democrat who wound up winning.

Even news that state GOP chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan planned to meet this week with a gay Republican organization, the Broward Log Cabin Republican Club, upset some activists.

"What is this," Sandi Trusso of Ocala asked in an e-mail to Gov. Bush about the Log Cabin meeting. "Is it time for a recall on the state chairman's office? I thought we were Republicans!"

Exit polls in 2000 found that 4 percent of voters nationally identified themselves as gay, and one in four of those voters - 1.1-million people - backed George W. Bush over Al Gore. In a race as close as 2000, that's a group of voters who may have decided the election.

How appreciative are Republicans? Today, it seems even a rumor could be enough to derail the sort of fiscally conservative, socially moderate candidate well suited to win statewide elections.

"I hope Mark can overcome it," said former state party chairman Tom Slade. "But I have my doubts."

- Political Editor Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 1, 2003, 02:05:26]

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