Gay voters showing lesbian Susan Tracy it takes more than an openly gay candidate to win their support.
Susan Tracy likes to tell the story of John F. Kennedy's political rise. Before he was elected president, Massachusetts's eighth congressional district made Kennedy one of the first nationally prominent Catholic members of Congress. Now Tracy, a former member of the state legislature, is asking the district's voters to make her the first out lesbian elected to Congress.
"This is a district that clearly can look beyond stereotypes to make choices about who's the best candidate based on merits," says Tracy, who came out publicly in April. "I'd like to think that the district is willing to make history once again."
But Tracy faces stiff competition even for the district's substantial gay and lesbian vote in the September Democratic primary. In late April former Boston mayor Raymond Flynn, a longtime gay rights supporter, entered the race. Also in the crowded field of Democratic candidates are Marjorie Clapprood, who backed gay-friendly measures as a state representative from 1984 to 1990, and George Bachrach, a former state senator who led opposition to a policy that would have prohibited gay men and lesbians from becoming foster parents.
The eighth district, which includes liberal parts of Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston, is the most dramatic example of a happy pattern emerging in Democratic primaries across the country this election year: a plethora of pro-gay candidates lobbying aggressively for gay votes. The trend is forcing gay and lesbian voters into a more sophisticated system of decision making, considering, candidates' stances on gay rights alongside a host of other factors.
"It's not good enough to be a gay candidate anymore; you need to be a very good candidate," says Amy Walter, U.S. House editor of "The Cook Political Report," a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan newsletter that monitors congressional elections. "Women candidates can't automatically count on the women's vote anymore. Why should gay candidates? As gays are more and more visible in electoral politics, the choices get more and more difficult."
Flynn, for instance, likely will lose some votes among gay Democrats because of his opposition to abortion rights. And even Tracy has a blemish on her record. She is a close ally of Massachusetts house speaker Tom Finneran, who has earned the enmity of gay men and lesbians in the state by bottling up legislation that would provide benefits to same-sex partners of Boston city employees.
Tracy says that compromises are an inevitable part of mainstream politics. "Tom's a longtime friend, and I don't expect him to agree with me on every issue," she says. "In politics it is my job to work with all kinds of people who don't necessarily think like me. That's how we can get things done. We can't use gay issues as a litmus test."
At age 37, Tracy already has deep roots in state politics. After supporting herself by waiting on tables after college, she was appointed by Flynn as head of Boston's commission on homeless shelters when she was 25. Tracy, who lives in the blue-collar Boston neighborhood of Brighton with her partner, was elected to the statehouse in 1990. In 1994 she left to become a political consultant.
When Tracy came out as a lesbian in the April 2 edition of the Boston Herald, a metropolitan daily, only her closest friends and family knew of her sexual orientation. In an interview with The Advocate, she says she made the decision because she wanted to confront the issue head-on: "I wanted to take away any whispers about my private life. More important, I don't think you can represent your constituents if you are not completely honest with them.
For his part, Flynn, an Irish Catholic from working-class south Boston who served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, has bucked the church on gay rights. …