The outing of Ken Mehlman

Our view: The former GOP party chairman from Pikesville has an opportunity to set the record straight — and put conservatives more at ease with same-sex marriage

August 30, 2010

Ken Mehlman probably should not expect a fond embrace from the gay community, at least not right away. The Pikesville native outed himself last week in the Atlantic magazine and pledged to lobby for same-sex marriage. But the memories of his days as campaign manager for George W. Bush — and the Republican president's gay-bashing reelection strategy — live painfully on.

In the interview, Mr. Mehlman explains that he only recently recognized his identity. "It has taken 43 years for me to get comfortable with this part of my life," says the former Republican National Committee chairman who now makes astronomical wages as an executive vice-president for a major private equity firm in Manhattan. And certainly, we have seen such a struggle before from gay conservatives in public life: Maryland's former First District Congressman Robert E. Bauman set the precedent long ago, but only several years after he was charged with soliciting sex from a 16-year-old male prostitute in 1980.

Had Mr. Mehlman spoken out publicly in 2004, he might have helped the same-sex marriage cause immeasurably. He claims he did lobby to blunt some of the Republican strategy against gays. He deserves some benefit of the doubt, as he is no longer a political operative working alongside Karl Rove and did not need to reveal himself at all.

How has the announcement played among the party faithful? Without a great deal of fanfare. That may be partly because the self-outing was not all that surprising (at one time, Mr. Mehlman denied the widespread rumors on national television). Perhaps others in the GOP are a little embarrassed and would rather the former apparatchik had his 15 minutes and went away.

But the more likely reason for the non-interest and a distinct failure to condemn coming from the usual suspects may be that conservatives' views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage are softening. The difference between now and a half-decade ago is experience — thousands of gay couples have wed in recent years, and the world did not stop spinning. The social benefit for them, their children, their friends and families and their communities has been too substantial to ignore. The country is moving on — a point that opinion polls have repeatedly confirmed.

Current RNC Chairman and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele even went so far as to issue a statement of support for his predecessor at the RNC. He said he was "happy for Ken" and that the announcement reaffirmed why he respects him "personally and professionally."

That warmth may seem odd juxtaposed next to GOP hard-line stances on gay rights issues, such as the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law that forces gay and lesbian troops to stay in the closet. That's because it is odd. But inevitably, a majority will come to recognize the hypocrisy of supporting individuals who are gay when they are friends and family and bashing them when they are not.

Meanwhile, if Mr. Mehlman is looking for a place to take up the same-sex marriage cause, his native Maryland beckons. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has advised that such marriages must be legally recognized here — but they can't be legally created here, at least not until the General Assembly rewrites the law. In Annapolis, the man who once led efforts to bring more African-Americans to his party and strongly supported Mr. Steele's political ambitions in the state could be an effective voice for this important civil rights issue.

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