D.C. Republicans last week selected a former leader of the Log Cabin Republicans to guide them into citywide elections in 2006, choosing an openly gay chairman at a time when the national party has been accused of displaying hostility toward gays.
With the Dec. 6 vote, lawyer Robert J. Kabel becomes the first openly gay person in the nation to chair a state Republican committee. His election was hailed by gay-rights activists and local Republican leaders as a historic event and a refreshing counterpoint to the divisiveness of the recent presidential campaign.
"Bob Kabel has been a leading voice for inclusion in the Republican Party,'' said Log Cabin President Patrick Guerriero. "His election as chairman of the D.C. GOP is a tremendous victory for fair-minded Republicans everywhere."
Added at-large council member Carol Schwartz, the only Republican on the 13-member D.C. Council: "Bob Kabel has worked long and hard for the local party and its candidates, and he represents a needed diversity at the national level."
Kabel takes charge of a party that has long struggled to attain relevance in city politics. The GOP is outnumbered by Democrats nearly 10 to 1 among registered D.C. voters, and city elections are routinely decided in the Democratic primary.
Until recently, the GOP also counted at-large council member David A. Catania among its ranks. But Catania, who also is openly gay, switched his registration from Republican to independent after a months-long dispute with party leaders over President Bush's endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage became an important issue in the Nov. 2 election, with measures banning it passing by wide margins in 11 states.
Catania called for Bush's defeat, saying the president was seeking to "write discrimination into the U.S. Constitution." In June, Betsy Werronen, then the city GOP chairwoman, stripped Catania of his spot in the D.C. delegation to the Republican National Convention in New York, saying she could not certify a delegate who refused to support the president.
In an interview, Kabel said he would have handled the situation with Catania differently. One of his first goals as party chairman, he said, will be to lure the popular council member back into the Republican fold.
"A lot of people were disgruntled over a number of issues in the presidential campaign," Kabel said. "But the party in the city is really about the city, and that's what we're going to focus on."
Neither Catania nor officials at the Republican National Committee returned calls for comment.
Kabel, 58, is a lawyer with the law firm of Baker & Daniels. Originally from Cincinnati, he came to the nation's capital more than 30 years ago to work on Capitol Hill and spent five years as legislative director for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Indiana). He later moved to the White House, where he served President Ronald Reagan as special assistant for legislative affairs.
Kabel chaired the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's largest organization of gay conservatives, from 1993 to 1999. He later chaired its think-tank arm, the Liberty Education Forum. For the past four years, he has served as vice chairman of the D.C. GOP, leading the subcommittee that last June wrote the party's first platform. It is the only state GOP platform in the nation that explicitly opposes the passage of a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Kabel defeated W. Ronald Evans, the chairman of the National Capital Revitalization Corp., for the top party post. In addition to Kabel, D.C. Republicans elected Susan Denniston, Jerod Tolson and Teri Galvez as vice chairs, Nancy Nord as treasurer and Shaun Snyder as secretary.
Kabel campaigned on promises to organize in neighborhoods across the city and recruit Republican candidates for "as many elections as possible," a task he called "a tremendous challenge."
"It's clear to anybody we don't have two parties in the city. We really have one party," Kabel said. "We need to do a lot of outreach and find ways to be persuasive for people to register Republican, to explain what the party stands for."