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Providence Gay Issue Recalls Paolino's 1990 Democratic Primary (posted August 15, 2002)

This week's endorsement of Democratic mayorial candidate Joe Paolino by the newly-created gay group Voices 4 Equality has raised interesting questions about how the gay issue will play out in this year's election. On August 12, the group announced its support for Paolino over his major rival David Cicilline, an openly gay candidate. The press conference was treated as a major news story by many outlets. Television stations gave the endorsement major coverage as did the Providence Journal. Not only did the story get a page one (Rhode Island section) feature by AP writer Brian Carovillano, it generated an interesting column by Providence Journal writer Charlie Bakst.

Within days of the news event, though, at least one journalist was criticizing the heavy media publicity which accompanied the announcement. Appearing on the WSBE-TV show "A Lively Experiment", WJAR-TV reporter Jim Taricani called the gay group "bogus" and said the media should not have covered the story. According to him, the group has few members, no organization, and has held almost no meetings. In his mind, this raised serious questions about the group's authenticity.

The interesting question at this point is how the gay issue will affect the primary. Will Cicilline's presence as an openly gay candidate lead to a backlash from traditional voters uncomfortable with the possibility of a gay mayor? Or will voters demonstrate tolerance for someone with a different sexual orientation from themselves?

Paolino's role in raising this issue as well as his persistence in actively presenting his wife and four children in television ads is ironic given the way gay rumors about him torpedoed his 1990 gubernatorial bid. As noted previously in my book, Patrick Kennedy: The Rise to Power, this is not the first time gay politics have intersected with Paolino's electoral ambitions. However, this time, Paolino is the one who has interjected the issue.

On page 56 of the book, I recount the story of how gay rumors were used against Paolino by one of his Democratic primary opponents. "To beat Paolino, Sundlun had helped spread a scurrilous rumor that Paolino was a closet homosexual. There was no evidence to back up the charges, but in close-knit Rhode Island, the slanderous rumor was widely circulated and hurt Paolino politically with some undecided voters."

In a March 14, 1991 visit to a class I taught at Brown University, Paolino had told the story of Sundlun using unsubstantiated gay rumors against him and his view that the rumors had contributed to his own weak finish (third place behind the victor Sundlun) in the 1990 Democratic primary for governor. The rumors never had been broadcast or published by reporters, but their open circulation had caused one television anchor (Dave Layman of WLNE-TV) to confront Paolino with the rumors shortly before the election with the cameras rolling. An angry Paolino had denied the charges and Layman did not air the interview. He later apologized to Paolino for raising the issue.

This story from more than a decade ago demonstrates how politically volatile the gay issue is in election campaigns. Raising it at election time can unleash emotional reactions from many different quarters. Our country still is not comfortable dealing with the gay issue. In many respects, the political controversy surrounding the issue shows how far we have to go in coming to grips with the subject of sexual orientation.

In his campaign this year, Cicilline has acknowledged he is gay, but has not campaigned as a gay candidate. He has addressed a wide range of issues from education to the need for political reform. The September primary will show whether voters will evaluate him as a gay candidate or as a candidate who happens to be gay.

With one candidate openly being gay (Cicilline) and two candidates campaigning openly on family values (Paolino and David Igliozzi), look for the gay issue to be a stealth factor in how voters make up their minds. If it were a two-way race between Paolino and Cicilline, the subject would be more problematic for Cicilline given the presence of large numbers of senior citizens in Providence, many of whom hold rather traditional views about lifestyle issues.

However, with a four-way primary, all bets are off in terms of how this issue will affect the primary outcome. Paolino and Igliozzi are campaigning for a similar base (i.e., traditional, working class ethic voters). They very well could split the vote of people uncomfortable with having an openly gay mayor. If this happens, it could clear the way for Cicilline to make political history in Rhode Island.

Copyright 2000Karen Martin Media Services