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Groundbreaking Election Looms For San Diego


San Diego may be thought of nationally as a conservative town with a long military tradition, not as a political groundbreaker. That could change in next year’s mayoral race.

— San Diego’ s annual Gay Pride Parade has grown steadily since it officially began in 1980. Last year thousands lined the streets of Hillcrest as performers, bands and floats blasting dance music rolled by. And among the revelers were what has become a common, almost predictable sight: local politicians.

City Council members, the mayor and state lawmakers all took part. But even a generation ago, marching in the Pride Parade wasn’t acceptable, as former City Manager Jack McGrory discovered.

"I became Manager in 1991 and in 1992 the gay and lesbian employees of the city asked me to march in the Gay Pride Parade," he explained. "And you would have thought from Roger Hedgecock to all the talk show people that I had become a communist. I mean I was just pilloried with all these talk shows and stuff (saying) that the manager’s going to march in the gay pride parade. And today it’s nothing."

In fact today the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community is seen as a strong political force in the city. And there’s a strong possibility San Diego could elect its first openly gay mayor in 2012.

The field of candidates includes three strong gay candidates. Councilman Carl DeMaio and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis have already begun campaigning for the office. State Senator Christine Kehoe is also exploring a run. Susan Atkins, National Chair of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, calls the race an embarrassment of riches. Her organization works to get openly gay candidates elected to office across the country. She said San Diego has been a model for embracing diversity.

"We have a very cohesive and generous community in San Diego who, from a fairly early time, certainly the early '90s, realized that politics matters," she said.

What those politics are may be surprising to some. The LGBT community has typically been affiliated with the Democratic Party, but both Dumanis and DeMaio are Republicans. Openly gay city Councilman Todd Gloria, a Democrat, said he knows what the perception is, but said it’s not necessarily accurate.

"If you’re inside in the community, you know that there are a good deal of LGBT people who are Republicans," he said. "But probably to the broader community, knowing what the national party feels about gay rights, it may be surprising. But you look here to San Diego, Mayor Sanders has been one of the most eloquent and outspoken for LGBT equality and he is a Republican."

Sanders garnered national headlines in 2007 when he held an emotional press conference announcing his new-found support for same-sex marriage after learning several of his staff members -- and his daughter -- were gay.

"I couldn’t look any of them in the face and tell them their relationship, their very lives, were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife Rana," Sanders told the media. Since then Sanders has been a vocal supporter for gay rights.

But San Diego has a reputation as being fiscally conservative town, rather than a socially conservative one. UC-San Diego Political Scientist Vladimir Kogan has compared voting records in San Diego to the rest of the state."

"On fiscal issues, San Diego generally does vote more conservatively than the rest of the state," he said. "But if you look at social issues, like Prop. 8, gay marriage, abortion, San Diego’s really not that different."

Still, it took decades of work by gay-rights advocates before San Diegans elected an openly gay candidate. Gloria said the first gay person ran for office in the '70’s. Christine Kehoe was finally elected to City Council in the mid-'90’s. Gloria said having three gay candidates in the race for mayor is a source of pride for the gay community.

"I actually feel about it the same way I did of the presidential campaign in 2008, where you had two barrier-breaking candidates running for the Democratic nomination," he said.

The barriers broken by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were different. Yet Gloria said the sexual orientation of these 2012 mayoral candidates is not an issue for most people. He said that’s exactly where San Diego needs to be.

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