By ELLIOT SPAGAT
SAN DIEGO – Two leading Republican contenders for mayor of America’s eighth-largest city are openly gay, and voters have barely noticed. It doesn’t come up at campaign appearances or in local news coverage.
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and City Councilman Carl DeMaio haven’t made their marks as gay rights activists, which may help explain why their sexual orientation has been a non-issue even among social conservatives. Neither makes a secret of being gay, but they don’t draw attention to it, either.
San Diego, which has had Republican mayors since 1992, could easily become the nation’s largest city to ever choose an openly gay GOP leader, said Donald Haider-Markel, a Kansas University political science professor who published a book last year on gays in public office. Gay Republicans have historically been hindered by lack of support from party leaders and financial backers.
Mayor Jerry Sanders, a former police chief being forced out by term limits, faced a mutiny in his party in 2007 when he abruptly announced that he believed gays should have rights to marry, saying his lesbian daughter and members of his staff deserved no less. He captured national attention when he fought tears at a news conference to explain his change of heart to support same-sex marriage on the eve of his re-election bid.
“It is Bible truth that the Republican Party hierarchy threatened to take Jerry’s endorsement away,” said Fred Sainz, his communications director at the time.
About one-third of San Diego County’s Republican Party central committee voted to yank its backing of Sanders, said Chairman Tony Krvaric, but Sanders kept the endorsement and went on to win easily.
That episode now seems like distant history.
The mayoral race comes as voters nationwide are increasingly willing to elect gays to public office and as Republicans shift their energies from hot-button social issues to bread-and-butter questions about the size and role of government in shaping the economy.
A nationwide Gallup poll in June showed 67 percent of voters surveyed would elect a gay president, up 12 percentage points from four years ago. The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund says the number of openly gay officeholders nationwide doubled in the last four years to about 500. They include Annise Parker, a Democrat who was elected mayor of Houston in 2009.
Yet there are only about 20 openly gay Republican elected officials nationwide, according to the Victory Fund.
Dumanis, 59, is running on her experience managing a large organization. The three-term San Diego County district attorney is backed by Sanders and boasts a law enforcement background.
DeMaio, 36, is almost single-mindedly focused on city finances. The businessman-turned-city councilman is spearheading a proposed ballot measure that would put new hires on 401k accounts and curb pension payments for all workers.
The other top Republican candidate is Nathan Fletcher, 34, a two-term state assemblyman and Marine combat veteran who says San Diego needs a visionary, not just a nuts-and-bolts manager. Also running is U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, 69, a liberal Democrat and former city councilman.
If no one wins a majority in the June election, the top two finishers advance to a November runoff. Others have five months to put their names on the ballot, but the wide-open contest is already taking shape.
Republican leaders say the party wants fixes for San Diego’s $2.1 billion unfunded pension liability, a growing deficit that regularly threatens to close fire stations, parks and beach bonfire pits. Whether a candidate is gay, they say, is irrelevant.
“If the candidates don’t make it an issue, voters won’t make it an issue,” said Krvaric, who calls himself a social conservative.
Dumanis appears often in public with her partner of 13 years, Denise Nelesen, communications manager for the San Diego County Aging and Independence Services agency. The couple married in 2008, two months before California voters approved Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage.
Dumanis was openly gay when she first ran for office in 1994, winning election to San Diego municipal judge. She says her sexual orientation has surfaced only occasionally during campaigns, and that appearances with her partner put people at ease.
“People get to know that our lives are the same as their lives,” Dumanis said. “It’s easier to hate a stereotype than it is a person. I make a point of introducing Denise wherever I go.”
DeMaio has been in a committed relationship for more than two years with Jonathan Hale, publisher of San Diego Gay & Lesbian News and a website that features racy pictures of bare-chested men. DeMaio says he told family, friends and co-workers in 2000 that he was gay.
Nicole Ramirez Murray, a longtime gay activist in San Diego, criticized DeMaio in a recent column for the San Diego LGBT Weekly because DeMaio identified himself as single in a questionnaire for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
DeMaio says he listed himself single because that’s what he is under California law. He noted that he often appears publicly with his partner in his conservative district.
DeMaio was silent during the Proposition 8 campaign, unlike Dumanis, who was outspoken against the marriage ban. He says he believes that gays should be entitled to marry but that he wouldn’t take up the issue as mayor.
DeMaio, who has endeared himself to fiscal conservatives and enraged organized labor, says any discussion of his being gay is intended to distract voters from the city’s finances.
“(Sexual) orientation is not an issue. It’s not a plus or a minus,” he said.
The straight candidates may appeal strongest to gay voters.
Fletcher, who is married to a former aide to President George W. Bush, was the only Assembly Republican to vote for a bill in July that requires gay history be taught in California public schools. He spoke passionately on the Assembly floor in May to call for an end to the military’s policy of prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving openly and supports a legal right to same-sex marriage.
Filner benefits from being the lone, widely known Democrat. The party has steadily extended its lead over Republicans among San Diego’s registered voters over the last decade, enjoying an 11-point advantage. Sixty percent of gay voters in San Diego are Democrats, according to a June poll by the Competitive Edge & Research polling firm in San Diego.
“They’re kind of off-limits to Republicans,” said John Nienstedt, the firm’s president. “The gay votes are going to go Democratic.”
It remains to be seen if Republican voters will vote for a gay mayor. Several said they would at a rally last month for Rick Perry’s GOP presidential bid, where DeMaio gave his standard speech about city finances before the Texas governor spoke.
Glenn Stock, a 51-year-old real estate broker who likes DeMaio, said a candidate’s sexual orientation is “not even in play.”
“Right now we’ve got to get our house in order,” he said. “We need jobs. We need city services.”