Sinking Santorum: Why Are Gays and Lesbians Pounding the Pavement for a U.S. Senate Candidate Who Opposes Same-Sex Marriage and Won't Stand Up for Gays in the Military? Look at Whom He Has a Good Chance of Defeating

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For lesbian and gay political activists, asking for votes in Bella Vista--a progressive urban community on the edge of south Philadelphia just a stone's throw from the city's main gay neighborhood--is like trick-or-treating in subarbia, and canvassers usually get lots of treats. A recent August afternoon was no exception for Mark Dann, a 28-year-old political activist who has dedicated recent efforts in his budding career to electing Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey to the U.S. Senate.

A social conservative who opposes same-sex marriage, Casey might seem like an unlikely hero for Dann and other LGBT activists. But Casey has one important thing going for him: He has the potential to beat Republican senator Rick Santorum in the 2006 midterm election this November.

"It's a great reason to get out of bed in the morning," says Dann, after spending three hours in the sweltering summer sun asking Philadelphians to fire Santorum this fall. "We could really change the country."

While gays, lesbians, and their allies across the country solicit votes in an election year marked by upheaval and the potential for a major Democratic upset in Washington, perhaps no single race is being watched with as much anticipation as the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania. It's easy to see why. A torchbearer for the religious right, Santorum has championed the Federal Marriage Amendment (a.k.a. the Marriage Protection Amendment) and has publicly attacked the judiciary for supporting gay civil rights. He opposes legislation that would ban job discrimination against gays and a bill that would stiffen penalties for hate crimes.

But it's Santorum's very public condemnations of homosexuality that really rankle gays. The 48-year-old, who grew up in Butler County, Pa., has routinely made antigay comments: as chair of the Senate Republican Conference; in his latest book, It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good; and wherever else he finds an audience. The most glaring example came in a 2003 interview with the Associated Press when he compared gay sex to bestiality, incest, and pedophilia.

Now, with Majority Leader Bill Frist having announced his retirement from the Senate in January 2007, Santorum could win election to the number 2 spot in the Senate. "There's no greater enemy to the LGBT community than Rick Santorum and, quite frankly, there is no one who is more dangerous," says Joe Solmonese, president of the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.

A Santorum defeat would be a huge symbolic victory for lesbians and gays because it would send a message to antigay special interests that their allies in state and federal office are vulnerable to LGBT voters, says Eric Cheung, 33, a senior attorney at the Clean Air Council who volunteered to pound the pavement with Dann. "It's a lot more than just getting rid of a bad senator," Cheung says.

Braving the heat and humidity on the streets of Bella Vista, Dann, Cheung, and other activists received thumbs up from passersby, neighborly honks from cars, and a few dozen signatures on a petition to expand local housing and employment rights for gays and lesbians. And there were words of support from people such as Joel Palmer, a landlord in faded jeans and a navy polo shirt who lives in a town house on South Ninth Street. "Good work, guys," Palmer affirmed when approached by Dann, who wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with a faded blue head shot of Santorum overlaid with the universal sign for elimination: a red circle with a slash through it. "Anything to get rid of Rick Santorum," added Palmer.

But not everyone agreed, even in this predominantly progressive neighborhood where young urban singles--many of whom are lesbian or gay--rub elbows with straight empty-nesters, and where trendy new shops are popping up next to traditional Italian markets. "You're knocking on the wrong door," said Wilma Hoffman, a 59-year-old cancer researcher who lives in a town house on South Seventh Street. …