He's a Republican in a Democratic district, and gay A long-shot bid for a House seat CAMPAIGN 1994

October 31, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

James Harrison, a candidate for the House of Delegates, chooses Roy Rogers for a lunch meeting. The restaurant is affordable, he says. Plus it is directly across the street from a Metro stop, and he doesn't own a car.

Over Original Roast Beef sandwiches, Mr. Harrison acknowledges it readily: This is not a big-time campaign. In his first election race ever, Mr. Harrison is a long shot, a dark horse, an underdog.

He's a Republican who is challenging three incumbent Democrats for one of three slots. And he is running in the 20th District -- which encompasses Takoma Park and eastern Silver Spring -- where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one.

"It's just very, very hard for a Republican to run here," said Del. Peter Franchot, one of the incumbents. "I suppose a truck could run over one of us."

Slim though Mr. Harrison's chances may be of winning in the Nov. 8 election, his campaign is fat with irony. The 46-year-old, who is a word processor at the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Washington, is the only openly gay person running for office in Maryland, according to the Free State Justice Campaign, a statewide gay and lesbian group.

And if elected, he would be the first openly homosexual person to win a state-level office in the state.

But at a time when gays and lesbians nationwide are rallying to elect more members of their community to public office, Mr. Harrison's campaign is the cause of dismay and frustration among local gay groups.

"Harrison thinks of himself as someone who just happens to be gay -- he doesn't consider it a political identity. As far as his being a strong advocate for gays and lesbians in the district, he just isn't," said Bonnie J. Berger, co-chair of the Free State Justice Campaign.

Born in Norfolk, Va., to a family of long-time Southern Democrats, Mr. Harrison said his parents, a bread salesman and a secretary, stressed independence and honesty.

While attending Old Dominion University, he switched to the Republican Party because he felt it supported individualism. "I believe in the individual. That is how I reconcile myself to the parts of the Republican Party that aren't accepting of me," he said.

To campaign, Mr. Harrison, a Teddy Bear-type of man -- short, with a round, mustachioed face and deep dimples -- stands once a week along University Boulevard waving at drivers as they hurry to work.

Although gay and lesbian issues have played little part in his campaign, Mr. Harrison makes no attempt to hide his sexual orientation. He is a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay Republican group and is the chairman of the Maryland chapter. Log Cabin's mission is to "educate Republicans so that Republicans understand that equality for gays and lesbians is absolutely consistent with traditional, conservative goals," according to Abner Mason, its national president.

Mr. Harrison's platform, while making no mention of gay issues, includes tougher sentences for violent criminals, streamlining government, and making sure Montgomery County gets a fair share of state revenues.

"I want [voters] to judge me on what I can do for the whole community, not just a special interest group," he said.

Gays "have an idea that to have this lifestyle, you have to be segregated, that you can't be mainstream. I got tired of being a minority."

Mr. Harrison received low scores for his support of gay issues from the Montgomery County Gay and Lesbian Interests Consortium and the Free State Justice Campaign.

The organizations rated candidates on the basis of their answers to a survey that included questions about anti-discrimination measures, same-sex marriage and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws. "He got a 1, which is 'little or no support' for these issues," said Ms. Berger.

His opponents, Dels. Dana L. Dembrow, Franchot and Sheila E. Hixson, received top marks. Del. Hixson was the lead sponsor of the bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, which failed in the last legislative session.

Mr. Harrison, however, said he would support repeal of anti-sodomy laws.

Many gays and lesbians, while expressing admiration for Mr. Harrison's decision to run as an openly gay candidate, express dismay over his views.

Gays and lesbians throughout the country are struggling to elect more members of their community to political positions, said Kathleen DeBold, deputy director of the Victory Fund, a national network that gives gay candidates financial support.

Of the 497,155 officials elected nationwide to serve in positions from school boards to Congress, 102 are openly gay or lesbian, according to Ms. DeBold.

This year, 17 gay or lesbian politicians are receiving support from the Victory Fund, but "Mr. Harrison is not one of our recommended candidates," she said.

"It is sad. It is frustrating. It's disappointing. It's annoying," said Ms. Berger.

"District 20 is a very heavily gay district . . . Harrison has done nothing to distinguish himself or work a constituency that is known to exist and known to vote -- he's missed an opportunity," she said.

Mr. Harrison "could have been real instrumental in the reform movement in this state," said Steve Barchers, co-chair of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Silver Spring. "Perhaps he's not in touch with his potential with gay and lesbian constituents."

To Mr. Harrison, such criticism is not surprising. "This is supposed to be a country of different views and attitudes and that's fine. . . ."

"Sometimes, it seems gays have a litmus test that everyone must pass and agree on 100 percent, or they are a traitor," he said. "I'm not a missionary, but I feel like if I can help modify [Republicans' opinions about gays] one little bit, I've done something."

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