The little girl walking between us held our hands as we crossed a footbridge over the river. Tree leaves were colored red and gold and hues of yellow and orange and a [...]
Eric Resnick did not want to ask the question. He felt an obligation, though, because other reporters were avoiding the subject. They ought to have long ago confronted Ken Mehlman about the contradictions between his politics and his personal life. Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, was constantly around reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, CNN, ABC, NBC, and all of the major media outlets. None of them, however, had dared to question the RNC chairman about what Eric Resnick considered a blatant, obvious hypocrisy.
Mehlman, Karl Rove’s general for handling issues and elections across the country as President Bush’s campaign manager, had been closely involved with the Issue One referendum in Resnick’s home state of Ohio. Republicans there referred to the ballot item as the pro-marriage amendment and the Defense of Marriage Act. People like Eric Resnick, a gay man who was a reporter for the Gay People’s Chronicle in Cleveland, considered Issue One to be an anti-homosexuality law designed to make their lives miserable. He resented being used as a political device to motivate a hate vote against homosexuals.
“For our community, it was absolutely incredible,” he explained. “Every single debate and discussion had something gay in it and we’ve never seen anything like that before. At that point, it is part of the public policy discussion and those guys revved up their base and used our community as an issue to win votes in that election and at that point it does become a public matter.”
Resnick and most of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community of Ohio were incensed at Republican efforts, led by Karl Rove, to use a political wedge issue to drive a huge turnout of Christian Right voters. Even more than that, though, gay political organizations had begun actively questioning whether RNC chairman Ken Mehlman was gay, making it difficult to believe that he was complicit in the anti-gay part of Rove’s Master Plan. Gay bashing gays? Resnick had trouble believing in such a concept. Nobody in the mainstream media had considered Mehlman’s apparent hypocrisy that important. But Resnick did. He thought he had a right to know, that the GOP had made gay Republicans an issue by advancing an anti-gay-rights agenda in its bid to win the presidency.
Coincidentally, Resnick was being presented with a chance to confront the hypocrisy during a trip to Ohio by Mehlman. And he was not going to pass it up. Resnick intended to be the first reporter to ask Ken Mehlman if he was gay. So when an invitation came from the Log Cabin Republicans to a fund-raising banquet in Akron, Resnick knew he was going to attend. Ken Mehlman, the target of a relentless Internet outing campaign and the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, was the featured speaker for the post-2004 election thank you dinner for Summit County Republicans.
Most of the people gathering that night were either unaware of the controversy or did not care. But Eric Resnick did. And as a good journalist, he knew that the dinner and speech in Akron was exactly where he needed to be. As a result, on March 19, 2005, Resnick was making the quick run between Cleveland and Akron to attend the Summit County Lincoln Day Dinner.
Out the window of his car, the mercurial weather of late winter offered the possibility of warm days ahead in the Great Lakes basin or the unexpected dump of new snow. Resnick had purchased a $40 ticket from the Log Cabin Republicans in order to attend the fundraiser at the Quaker Station convention hall in Akron. He had no intention of presenting reporter’s credentials but he was not making the trip as a participant in Summit County’s Republican Party politics.
“I knew Ken Mehlman would be there,” Resnick explained. “And I knew I would have access to him afterwards just because of the way people are when they line up to talk to the head table. I knew what I was doing when I went in and I knew the question I wanted to ask him.”
Resnick was well aware of the buzz within the gay community about the possibility that Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman might be gay. Mehlman, Resnick believed, needed to be confronted because he had been instrumental in the promotion of Issue One, referred to variously as the Defense of Marriage Act or the anti-gay rights law. As keynote speaker for the Lincoln Day Dinner, Mehlman intended to offer a personal congratulation to Summit County Republicans for dramatically helping President Bush with an increased turnout.
Issue One was part of an electoral elixir concocted by President Bush’s chief strategist Karl Rove. The political goal was about turning out millions of evangelical voters in Ohio and in ten other states where similar referenda to ban gay marriage were on the ballot. Rove had made a strategic decision to run toward his Republican base during a general election instead of attracting voters closer to the center. Many gays and lesbians saw the Issue One campaign as a direct affront to their inherent condition, a cruel and discriminatory piece of political gamesmanship that they knew would make their lives more complicated.
As always, Rove was careful to frame the issue in language emphasizing the sanctity of marriage, not a rebuke of homosexuals. The goal was to send a strong message to conservatives without jeopardizing moderate Republicans and independent voters, especially women in the suburbs, easily put off by any whiff of intolerance.
“Marriage is a very important part of our culture and our society,” Rove told Fox News. “If we want to have a hopeful and decent society, we ought to aim for that ideal. And the ideal is that marriage ought to be and should be a union of a man and a woman.”
Eric Resnick was one of the millions of gays in the US who was incensed by the tactic. Nothing, he felt, was being “forced on the political process.” After rulings in Massachusetts and San Francisco, Rove conducted polling on gay marriage and saw its political potential as a galvanizing issue among conservatives. In Resnick’s view, it was Rove and his Republican apparatchiks who were forcing the issue into the national debate. Worse, the policy was being advocated by gays within the GOP, which is what had put Resnick into his car to drive to Akron and confront Ken Mehlman on the Republican National Committee chairman’s own sexual orientation.
In the 2004 presidential election, there was no way for Resnick or any other Ohio resident to avoid Issue One. It was all over television and radio, on phone messages and in sermons at church. It was impossible for Ohio voters to miss the message about the sanctity of marriage and the need to protect all those “years of human history” by defining the institution of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Even Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the Ohio officeholder whose constitutional mandate called for non-partisan supervision of the state’s elections, recorded an announcement distributed using robo-calls to promote Issue One. Blackwell, a Republican who had designs on the Ohio governor’s office, is a conservative African-American. His association with Issue One helped to broaden the appeal of the measure into conservative black churches and increased the turnout for President Bush among minorities sympathetic to a gay-marriage ban.
Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University, abandoned his academic detachment in describing the Ohio secretary of state’s active involvement in promoting the change of law in his state.
“I actually came home one night and there on my answering machine was a message, ‘Hi. This is secretary of state Ken Blackwell urging you to vote yes on Issue One, an issue that will uphold the sanctity of marriage. It’s a simple little amendment.’ You fucker. I mean where are the ethics from the National Association of Secretaries of State to say that he shouldn’t be involved?”
During the 2004 race, Eric Resnick had been aggressive seeking out political candidates and campaign operatives in writing about Issue One and Blackwell’s advocacy of it. When the vice presidential debate came to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Resnick sought out Ken Mehlman, who was then running the Bush campaign, and asked him how closely Blackwell was working with the president’s re-election team on Issue One and why such a divisive subject was being used as a tactic. Mehlman denied that Issue One was anti-gay or divisive but he acknowledged that Bush officials were coordinating with the Ohio Secretary of State on Issue One. Officially, Karl Rove’s position was that the marriage amendments had arisen organically within 11 states and the Bush Campaign was not connected to those efforts. In fact, it was part of Rove’s active strategy to divide and conquer by microtargeting religious conservatives and motivating the base.
It struck Resnick that Mehlman’s answers at the vice presidential debate were evasive and mostly inconclusive, and so in the wake of Bush’s reelection and the smashing success of Issue One in galvanizing GOP voters, the gay journalist decided to make the trip to Akron where hundreds of Republicans gathered at Quaker Station in the post-election warmth of a political victory. Many in the crowd had paid $1000 to hear Mehlman offer praise for helping the president earn a second term and reinforce their own conservative principles. Mehlman had thanked Summit County because it had “increased its votes for George W. Bush from 2000 to 2004 more than any other county.” A line had formed in front of Mehlman near the dais and Resnick waited until it had shortened before approaching the chairman of the Republican National Committee. He was not carrying a recorder or wearing reporter’s credentials.
“I shook his hand and introduced myself as a reporter for the Gay People’s Chronicle,” Resnick said. “And I began asking him innocuous questions about things he had said in his speech. But I prefaced each one by saying, ‘Since the bloggers have outed you,’ or ‘Since you were outed on national radio is that going to change how the party treats gay people?’ He just ignored my premise and gave me canned, standard answers.”
A new line of Mehlman well wishers had gathered behind Resnick but he ignored them and kept peppering the GOP chair with questions. Eventually, Mehlman’s patience ran out and he denied that he had been outed.
“That’s inaccurate,” Mehlman said.
“What do you mean?” Resnick thought “inaccurate” was an odd word to use in that context.
“What they are saying in the blogs,” Mehlman answered, attempting a delicate political clarification.
“You mean you are not gay?” Resnick was hoping for some clarity of his own and he did not expect to get another chance to pose such a question.
“You have asked a question people shouldn’t have to answer,” Ken Mehlman said before slowly backing away from the reporter.
It was the first time a journalist had publicly asked the chairman of the Republican National Committee about his sexual orientation. Resnick’s story for his paper, headlined GOP National Chair Avoids Questions about his Sexuality, created a brief phenomenon in the gay and lesbian community that came to be known as “Mehlmania.” There was more blogging on the Web and talking on the radio, but Mehlman’s ambiguous reply did not meet the standards of news for mainstream journalists who neither noticed nor wrote about it.
“I just went in there believing if reporters started asking the question multiple times it would start to have an effect on him,” Resnick said.
But nothing changed. Ken Mehlman still ran the Republican Party. Powerful gay members of the GOP continued to exercise their influence in a manner that many considered both contradictory and hypocritical. And this odd confederacy was under the political auspices of Karl Rove, a man who had been forced to handle the emotional strain of dealing with homosexuality in his own family when he had discovered his adoptive father, who had raised him, was gay.
To Eric Resnick, it appeared that hardly anyone seemed to notice or care. “I am extremely angry about it all. I still am. And sometimes it’s hard for me to do this job as a reporter and put that all aside effectively and appropriately and truly get the story. And I am not sure I will ever get over the anger. Sixty-two percent of the people who voted in Ohio basically told us to go to hell. And that is not an easily reconcilable thing.”
And it still isn’t. Regardless of what the law says, or how the U.S. Supreme Court rules.