Photo: Jay L. Clendenin-Pool/Getty
Ken Mehlman, President Bush’s campaign manager in 2004 and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, has told family and associates that he is gay.
Mehlman arrived at this conclusion about his identity fairly recently, he stated in an interview. He agreed to answer a reporter’s questions, he said, because, now in private life, he wants to become an advocate for gay marriage and anticipated that questions would arise about his participation in a late-September fundraiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the group that supported the legal challenge to California’s ballot initiative against gay marriage, Proposition 8.
“It’s taken me 43 years to get comfortable with this part of my life,” said Mehlman, now an executive vice-president with the New York City–based private equity firm KKR. “Everybody has their own path to travel, their own journey, and for me, over the past few months, I’ve told my family, friends, former colleagues, and current colleagues, and they’ve been wonderful and supportive. The process has been something that’s made me a happier and better person. It’s something I wish I had done years ago.”
Privately, in off-the-record conversations with this reporter over the years, Mehlman voiced support for civil unions and told of how, in private discussions with senior Republican officials, he beat back efforts to attack same-sex marriage. He insisted, too, that President Bush “was no homophobe.” Mehlman often wondered why gay voters never formed common cause with Republican opponents of Islamic jihad, which he called “the greatest anti-gay force in the world right now.”
“Anyone who watched me knew I was clearly uncomfortable with the topic.”
Mehlman’s leadership positions in the GOP came at a time when the party was stepping up its anti-gay activities—such as the 2006 distribution in West Virginia of literature linking homosexuality to atheism, or the less-than-subtle, coded language in the party’s platform (“Attempts to redefine marriage in a single state or city could have serious consequences throughout the country … ”). Mehlman said at the time that he could not, as an individual Republican, go against the party consensus. He was aware that Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief strategic adviser, had been working with Republicans to make sure that anti-gay initiatives and referenda would appear on November ballots in 2004 and 2006 to help Republicans.
Mehlman acknowledges that if he had publicly declared his sexuality sooner, he might have played a role in keeping the party from pushing an anti-gay agenda.
“It’s a legitimate question and one I understand,” Mehlman said. “I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.” He asks of those who doubt his sincerity: “If they can’t offer support, at least offer understanding.”
“What I do regret, and think a lot about, is that one of the things I talked a lot about in politics was how I tried to expand the party into neighborhoods where the message wasn’t always heard. I didn’t do this in the gay community at all.”
He said that he “really wished” he had come to terms with his sexual orientation earlier, “so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]” and “reached out to the gay community in the way I reached out to African Americans.”
Mehlman understands that his attempts to justify his past silence will not be adequate for many people. He and his friends say that he is aware that he will no longer control the story about his identity—which will simultaneously expose old wounds, invite schadenfruede, and legitimize anger among gay-rights activists in both parties who did not hide their sexual orientations.
Mehlman, who has never married, long found his sexuality subject to rumor and innuendo. He was the subject of an outing campaign by gay-rights activist Mike Rogers, starting when Mehlman was Bush’s campaign manager. Rogers’s crusades against closeted gay Republicans split the organized gay lobby in Washington but were undoubtedly effective: He drove several elected officials, including Virginia Representative Ed Shrock, from office, pushed out a would-be presidential campaign manager for George Allen well before Allen was set to run, slung rumors about Senator Larry Craig’s sexual orientation well before Craig’s incident in a Minneapolis airport bathroom, and even managed to make homosexuality a wedge issue within the party’s activist circles.
In 2006, Rogers caught up to Mehlman and asked him why he gave “so many confusing answers to social conservatives about your homosexuality,” and followed up by asking whether Mehlman knew of a man who Rogers had claimed was Mehlman’s secret partner. Mehlman denied to Rogers that he had given conflicting answers and said that the man in question was a law-school classmate.
In several discussions I’ve had with Mehlman since he stepped down from the Republican National Committee in 2007, he never volunteered information about his sexual orientation, although charges that he helped preside over a resurgence in anti-gay sentiment were clearly an ongoing burden to him.
The disclosure at this stage of Mehlman’s life strikes one close friend as being like a decision to jump off of a high diving board: Mehlman knows that there is plenty of water below, but it is still frightening to look down and make the leap. Mehlman likes order and certainty, and he knows that the reaction to his public confirmation cannot be predicted or contained.
Mehlman is the most powerful Republican in history to identify as gay.
Because his tenure as RNC chairman and his time at the center of the Bush political machine coincided with the Republican Party’s attempts to exploit anti-gay prejudices and cement the allegiance of social conservatives, his declaration to the world is at once a personal act and an act of political speech.
“I wish I was where I am today 20 years ago. The process of not being able to say who I am in public life was very difficult. No one else knew this except me. My family didn’t know. My friends didn’t know. Anyone who watched me knew I was a guy who was clearly uncomfortable with the topic,” he said.
During the Rogers crusades, many news organizations made attempts to confirm rumors and stories about Mehlman’s sexuality. Republicans close to Mehlman either said they did not know, or that it did not matter, or that the question was offensive.
Mehlman once joked in public that although he was not gay, the rumors put a crimp on his social life. He admits to having misled several people who asked him about his sexuality directly.
He said that he plans to be an advocate for gay rights within the GOP, that he remains proud to be a Republican, and that his political identity is not defined by any one issue.
“What I will try to do is to persuade people, when I have conversations with them, that it is consistent with our party’s philosophy, whether it’s the principle of individual freedom, or limited government, or encouraging adults who love each other and who want to make a lifelong commitment to each other to get married.”
“I hope that we, as a party, would welcome gay and lesbian supporters. I also think there needs to be, in the gay community, robust and bipartisan support [for] marriage rights.”
Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman and long-time friend of Mehlman, said that “it is significant that a former chairman of the Republican National Committee is openly gay and that he is supportive of gay marriage.” Although Gillespie himself opposes gay marriage, he pointed to party stalwarts like former Vice President Dick Cheney and strategist Mary Matalin as open advocates for gay rights who had not been drummed out of the party. He acknowledged “big generational differences in perception when it comes to gay marriage and gay rights as an agenda, and I think that is true on the Republican side.”
But, Gillespie said, he does not envision the party platform changing anytime soon.
“There are a lot of Republicans who are gay, there are a lot of Republicans who support government sanction of gay marriage, a lot of Republicans who support abortion on demand, a lot of Republicans who support cap-and-trade provisions. They’re not single-issue voters.” Gillespie acknowledged that the party had been inhospitable to gay people in the past, and said that he hopes Mehlman’s decision to come out leads the party to be “more respectful and civil in our discourse” when it comes to the gay community.
Mehlman said that his formal coming-out process began earlier this year. Over the past several weeks, he has notified former colleagues, including former President Bush. Once he realized that the news would probably leak, he assembled a team of former advisers to help him figure out the best way to harness the publicity generated by the disclosure for the cause of marriage rights. He is worried that some will see his decision to go public as opportunistic. Mehlman recently moved to Chelsea, a gay mecca in New York City. He refused to discuss his personal life with me, and he plans to give only a few print interviews on the subject.
Chad Griffin, the California-based political strategist who organized opposition to Proposition 8, said that Mehlman’s quiet contributions to the American Foundation for Equal Rights are “tremendous,” adding that “when we achieve equality, he will be one of the people to thank for it.” Mehlman has become a de facto strategist for the group, and he has opened up his Rolodex—recruiting, as co-hosts for the AFER fundraiser, Paul Singer, a major Republican donor, hedge-fund executive, and the president of the Manhattan Institute; Benjamin Ginsberg, one of the GOP’s top lawyers; Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission; and two former GOP governors, William Weld of Massachusetts and Christie Todd Whitman of New Jersey.
Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award–winning writer of Milk, said, “Ken represents an incredible coup for the American Foundation for Equal Rights. We believe that our mission of equal rights under the law is one that should resonate with every American. As a victorious former presidential campaign manager and head of the Republican Party, Ken has the proven experience and expertise to help us communicate with people across each of the 50 states.”