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Ken Mehlman and the same-sex marriage debate

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 8:26 PM

Supporters of same-sex marriage have a new and unexpected advocate: Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and manager of President George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

Mehlman, now a private citizen and businessman, disclosed that he is gay in an article published online Wednesday in the Atlantic. He said he plans to participate in a fundraiser next month for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which supports legalizing same-sex marriage.

"It's something I wish I had come to terms with earlier," Mehlman said by phone Thursday. "It has made me a happier and better person. But I wish I had had the courage to have spoken out earlier."

Mehlman, who enjoyed a remarkable rise in Republican politics, is among the most prominent officials in the party to say that he is gay. His is an announcement of the most personal nature and yet one with potential political implications - and one that is drawing charges of hypocrisy from his critics.

Mehlman said he only recently accepted that he is gay. Asked whether he would have been able to accomplish what he did in the party had he come out then, he demurred. "I'm not going to speculate on that," he said. "I don't know the answer to that."

The disclosure comes at a time of heightened debate about same-sex marriage, resulting in part from a federal court decision that overturned California's voter-approved ban on such unions, and amid evidence of shifting attitudes that over time could put the Republican Party on the wrong side of public opinion.

Views on the issue have changed dramatically in the past five years, and although there is majority support for same-sex marriage in only a handful of states, attitudes nationwide continue to shift in the direction of greater tolerance on matters of sexual orientation and same-sex marriage. There is also a sizable generation gap on the topic, with younger voters far more likely to accept and endorse same-sex marriage than older voters.

As party chairman, Mehlman worked to broaden the base of the Republican Party, particularly by trying to attract more African Americans. He went so far as to condemn the party's infamous "Southern strategy" under Richard M. Nixon, an explicit effort to use racial divisions to peel white voters from the Democratic Party in the South.

"I tried hard to expand the party into new neighborhoods," Mehlman said. He now wishes the gay community had been among them, he said.

The immediate reaction to Mehlman's announcement was generally sympathetic. He said Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, whom he told before he went public with the news, responded in a "wonderful" way. Other Republican friends have been similarly understanding, even those who disagree with his position on same-sex marriage, he said.

Mehlman was the target of criticism on some gay-related blogs Thursday, but gay rights organizations generally welcomed his statement. "What's important is that Ken has joined the fight and is willing to lend his considerable talent and influence to advance equality," Michael Cole, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. "While the past cannot be overlooked, our future is far more important and with more and more people like Ken joining our movement that future holds great promise."

After graduating from Harvard Law School, where he was a classmate of Barack Obama's, Mehlman joined Bush's 2000 presidential campaign and was dispatched to Iowa. There he quickly proved his mettle as one of the sharpest and most energetic political talents in the Bush orbit - and one well-liked by his colleagues.

When Bush entered the White House, Mehlman followed as political director. Because of his political smarts and leadership skills, he was tapped to run the reelection campaign, part of a senior management team led by Karl Rove. The campaign adopted a strategy of seizing on state ballot initiatives opposing same-sex marriage to help mobilize and turn out conservative voters.

After Bush's reelection, Mehlman became RNC chairman. He was 38. He left after the 2006 midterms, in which his party took a beating, to join a law firm and later moved to his current job, the private equity firm KKR.

For the past two years, he has stayed out of politics and out of the public eye. Unlike many who leave high-level political jobs, he has avoided becoming a pundit. In that time and with that space, he said, he began to accept his sexual orientation. A friend said that until Mehlman left politics, he was so focused on his work, on supporting the Bush agenda and on leading the party that he "never stopped for self-reflection."

One person close to Mehlman who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly said the former party leader knows that some critics will accuse him of hypocrisy for what happened on his watch. "It's something he's not comfortable with or happy about," the friend said. "As he said, he can't rewrite history at this point. It's something he has regret about."

Vin Weber, a Republican former congressman from Minnesota, said there is a reasonable response to the suggestion that Mehlman has been hypocritical: He worked for a president who had a view on the issue of same-sex marriage, and Mehlman's job was to implement the policies and strategies of the president he served, "regardless of his own views."

Republican strategists said Mehlman's disclosure is unlikely to prompt the GOP to rethink its platform. "I don't think there's going to be a rush to change the views of the party on those issues," Weber said. But he added that it should remind Republicans that there is a constituency of gay Americans who hold conservative views on many issues.

GOP leaders have been muted in their response to the Proposition 8 decision in California, showing little interest in injecting same-sex marriage into the midterm elections this fall. The legal battle is now making its way toward a possible Supreme Court confrontation, perhaps in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign. Some strategists think that, depending on how the high court rules, the issue could once again become a political flash point with uncertain effects.

Some prominent Republicans have broken with their party on the issue, among them Laura Bush; former vice president Richard B. Cheney; strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign; and McCain's daughter Meghan.

But the issue conflicts both parties, said Ed Gillespie, who preceded Mehlman as RNC chairman and who opposes same-sex marriage. "Interestingly enough," he said, "I'm aligned with President Obama and his position, and Ken is aligned with Vice President Cheney and his position. It doesn't break cleanly along party lines."

Mehlman was asked whether he thinks his statement this week will change views in the Republican Party. He said he will leave that question to others. "I'm not a political prognosticator anymore," he said.

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