“Mayor Pete,” as he’s known to his growing fan base, is running a surprisingly strong and well-funded campaign for president. Lori Lightfoot has just won a landslide victory to become Chicago’s mayor.
Together, the ascendance of Lightfoot and Pete Buttigieg — the two-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana — highlights the remarkable progress made recently by gay and lesbian politicians, to the point where their sexual orientation is either an asset or a nonissue. Both Lightfoot and Buttigieg have talked comfortably about LGBT issues and their own same-sex marriages.
“The real news is not that openly gay candidates are successful, but that being openly gay has become irrelevant,” said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay issues.
“Here are two people with fresh ideas and a new vision for the future,” Socarides said. “Voters don’t care about their sexual orientation. That’s a sea change.”
It was only in 1998 that Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay person to gain a seat in the House of Representatives. There are now eight LGBT members of the House, and two in the Senate — Baldwin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, whose bisexuality never became an issue in her closely contested election campaign last year.
Lightfoot’s victory Tuesday in the third-largest U.S. city, along with lesbian Satya Rhodes-Conway’s victory in Madison, Wisconsin, brings the number of LGBT mayors to 37, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which recruits and supports LGBT candidates. In Colorado, Jared Polis was inaugurated in January as the nation’s first openly gay governor.
Annise Parker, a lesbian who served three terms as mayor of Houston and is now CEO of the Victory Fund, said LGBT candidates such as Polis and Lightfoot “are achieving positions that cause folks to sit up and take notice.”
“It’s not a fluke or an oddity,” she said. “These are dedicated, hardworking public servants who bring a directness and integrity to their service … They’re being open about who they are.”
Buttigieg — at 37, the youngest prominent contender in the Democratic presidential race — has received rave reviews for many of his public appearances and reported raising $7 million in the first fundraising period of the campaign. His husband, Chasten, has amassed 176,000 Twitter followers with cheerful and sometimes wry commentary about their relationship and their dogs, and has been invited to headline a gala being held Saturday in Houston by the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT rights group.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said Lightfoot’s and Buttigieg’s appeal is based on “character, leadership and ideas.”
Yet Minter also suggested that LGBT candidates may have certain distinctive strengths.
“They may be more likely to empathize with others who have experienced discrimination or obstacles,” he said. “They may also be more likely to cherish the opportunity to run for office and serve, something other politicians may take for granted.”
One indicator of the shifts in LGBT politics is that Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, and Buttigieg, a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan war veteran, have not been immune to criticism from some activists.
“For many members of the LGBTQ community, a candidate’s mere identity as gay or lesbian is not enough,” said professor Katherine Franke, who teaches gender and sexuality studies at Columbia University.
“Neither Lightfoot nor Buttigieg are particularly progressive in their policy positions on a number of issues,” Franke said. “Lightfoot has been criticized for being too pro-prosecution and pro-police in a city that has suffered significant police violence, and Buttigieg has been critiqued for his identification with elites.”
Thus far, the advancement of LGBT politicians has not been a bipartisan phenomenon. Very few of the nation’s top-tier LGBT elected officials have been Republicans, and only a handful of Republicans in Congress have signaled support for the Equality Act, a sweeping LGBT-nondiscrimination measure that has near-unanimous Democratic support.
“It’s exceedingly frustrating,” Parker said. “We’d love to support more candidates in the GOP, but the party of Donald Trump has no place for them. It has chosen to attack the rights and livelihoods of LGBT people to solidify political power.”
Tyler Deaton of the American Unity Fund, which seeks to boost support for LGBT rights among Republicans, acknowledged in an email that LGBT Democrats “are having an amazing year.”
“It’s a lesson to my fellow Republicans about the electability of LGBTQ candidates,” he wrote. “The party needs to look more like the voters, which includes recruiting and elevating more candidates who are women, people of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people.”
The flip side is a boon for the Democratic establishment, which courts financial and political support from LGBT activists and donors. Just last week, two Democratic presidential contenders — Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — spoke at a West Coast gala held by the Human Rights Campaign.
For some LGBT activists, the pace of change — and the greater public acceptance of LGBT candidates — is dramatic.
Lawyer Roberta Kaplan reflected that only six years ago she was litigating before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Edie Windsor, who faced an enormous tax bill because she was married to a woman instead of a man. Two years later, in 2015, the high court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
“The traditional Jewish blessing thanks God for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this season,” Kaplan said in an email. “That is very much how I feel today when I see news like Lori Lightfoot’s victory in Chicago or Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for president.”