Opinion: Gubernatorial Candidates Do Themselves Disservice in Skipping LGBT Forum

On April 28, the Pride Foundation of Maryland, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, and Baltimore’s GLCCB, an organization serving the LGBT community in Central Maryland, jointly hosted a forum for the leading candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor. We designed the event as an open microphone question-and-answer forum focused on five topics – ongoing discrimination, economic insecurity, health care, criminal justice and youth issues – and we requested that candidates frame their responses with regard for the specific impact of these issues on the LGBT community.  More than two months prior to the event we began to coordinate with the campaigns. We reached out through surrogates, spoke with campaign managers and personally invited the candidates themselves at other public events. Four of the seven candidates attended the forum – Krish Vignarajah, Jim Shea, Alec Ross and Rich Madaleno. Ben Jealous sent his regrets and his running mate (whom we did not let join the candidates running for governor onstage ). Rushern Baker confirmed only to claim days later a long-standing commitment would keep him from participating. Kevin Kamenetz simply declined. That any of them would have skipped this forum, especially given the current state of the race, is unfortunate. It’s also unwise. As The Baltimore Sun recently noted, candidates are now micro-targeting specific constituencies to garner the votes necessary for the nomination. Even for candidates leading in the latest Mason Dixon public opinion poll – Baker, Jealous and Kamenetz – the election in June is likely to be decided at the margins of the primary electorate. None of them has yet developed a deep base of support statewide, and the LGBT vote is no more consolidated than any other. Maryland’s LGBT community, while only 3.7 percent of the voting population, is undeniably Democratic. Approximately 80 percent of us “identify with or lean toward” the Democratic Party according to a Pew Research Center report published in October 2016. The same report indicates that LGBT voters are also generally more liberal in our views on all issues from economics to immigration policy.  Project Vote reported that we are more likely than the general population to attend a political rally, to consume political news, to write a letter to the editor and to comment on politics in social media. Mobilizing our vote can easily make a 3-point difference to a candidacy in a closely contested Democratic primary. As progressive voters with a propensity to amplify a political message and the potential to swing a close election, LGBT voters are the ones Democratic gubernatorial candidates should be actively pursuing. However, the attribute of LGBT voters that makes us the most unique and truly powerful constituency for any candidate is that we are represented in every demographic group in the electorate, and in every part of the state. Winning the loyalty of LGBT voters in the age of social media grants candidates entrée into communities they may find otherwise inaccessible, and gaining that loyalty during the primary will cement our support right through the general election campaign.  For Democratic candidates who are all polling weakly against a Republican incumbent with no record of hostility toward the LGBT community, it should have been an easy choice to find two hours in the schedule for an LGBT-oriented forum – especially one which will remain available by video on Facebook and YouTube. Ultimately, our event with the GLCCB was designed to help each voter in the LGBT community make an informed decision about who they believe is best suited to be Maryland’s next governor. And as a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization we offer no endorsement of any candidate or political party.  However, we would like to offer all political candidates a little advice: 1) You have to do more than march in a Pride parade if you want to enlist the political support of the LGBT community. 2) Embrace issues that are germane today and have nothing to do with the passage of marriage equality six years ago. 3) Listen to LGBT voters when they describe specific ways that public policy has impacted LGBT individuals. 4) Learn to speak about LGBT issues as true advocates rather than generic allies. 5) Understand that there’s no more tolerance for politicians who say they support the community but then don’t show up when asked. This fall we will co-host another forum for the general election candidates in the Maryland governor’s race. We encourage all political parties to send their nominees to discuss the issues that affect LGBT Marylanders. But for those who choose to be somewhere else – red, blue, green or otherwise – we’re letting you know now that your absence will be noted. BRIAN GATHERThe writer is a co-founder and board member of the Pride Foundation of Maryland, an organization focused on the history, culture and general well-being of Maryland’s LGBT community. He is on twitter @briangaither and can be reached at [email protected]. 

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