In many ways, the recent story of Sen. Roy Ashburn is quite familiar: a Republican politician with a history of anti-gay votes who gets caught in a compromising same-sex situation and sees his political career derailed.
But there’s a crucial difference: It took Ashburn, a major Bakersfield political figure, less than a week to come out of the closet.
“It’s unique that he came clean so quickly, in such a classy way,” said Fred Karger, an openly gay Republican and founder of Californians Against Hate, a pro-gay marriage group. “It was such an emotional radio interview he did.”
That radio interview, with conservative talk show host Inga Barks on KERN Radio in Ashburn’s district, may be telling in other ways as well.
Barks lambasted Ashburn for his “what were you thinking?” vote in favor of a tax increase as part of last year’s budget compromise, but she expressed compassion when he came out publically on her show on Monday morning.
Which is not to say that Ashburn hasn’t gotten some vitriol from both sides.
Randy Thommason, president of SaveCalifornia.com began an online campaign on Monday designed to force Ashburn to resign. One reason, Thomasson said, is that by getting divorced in 2003, Ashburn “chose homosexuality over his marriage.” Conservative blogger Jon Fleischman of the Flashreport called Ashburn’s DUI arrest in the early hours of March 3 the “nail in the coffin” that was first built by his budget vote. Fleischman also is a state Republican Party official.
Gay political leaders have been careful in their comments on Ashburn. Both Geoff Kors — a executive director of Equality California, the state’s most prominent gay political group — and Charles Moran, a spokesman for the Log Cabin Republicans, publically took Ashburn to task for his anti-gay votes and questioned whether they were needed to win elections in Kern County.
And some in the gay community have reached out to Ashburn in a way that has rarely been seen when gay GOP politicians have been forced out of the closet. Former Sen. Sheila Kuehl has spoken sympathetically of Ashburn to several media outlets, trying to put his anti-gay votes into perspective.
“I think it actually goes together in a way, because you don’t feel worthy of equal protection,” Kuehl said. “You feel that what you’re doing is bad. I think this process begins with telling people you are a member of this group, braving a mountain of disapproval.”
She also noted that while Ashburn’s case did involve a DUI — something she attributed to self-medicating with alcohol — it didn’t involve some of the more scandalous aspects of other recent cases that attracted national attention.
Rep. Mark Foley, for instance, was implicated in coming on to underage House pages. Sen. Larry Craig allegedly tried to solicit sex in an airport bathroom, while Rev. Ted Haggard did meth with a male prostitute. All three either went on to deny they were gay or avoid the question for months. The man Ashburn was with has been reported to be 29 — far younger than the 55-year-old Senator, but no more of an age difference than several straight legislators have indulged in in recent years.
She also said that in some ways, Republicans votes were not specific to gay civil rights.
“They vote against sexual harassment bills, they vote against gender equity bills,” Kuehl said. “They just vote against civil rights.”
But Ashburn won’t get a free pass, according to Dennis Mangers, a former legislator and longtime lobbyist who came out in 1981. He said comments in private about Ashburn have been more harsh.
“Nobody wants to attack a guy they know will have a period of great emotion and a lot to deal with,” Mangers said.
According to numerous people he has talked to, Mangers said, Ashburn plans to stay in Sacramento when he leaves office in a few months, rather than return to Bakersfield. There should be a place for Ashburn in the local gay community, and even potential for him to “become a leader in the human rights movement of his community.” But first Ashburn must drop the “Nuremberg defense” of saying he was just voting with his district.
“If he wants to live and work here and be part of the community, he’s going to have to make amends in some way,” Mangers aid. “That will probably include an apology.”
Ashburn’s sexual orientation has been chattered about in the Capitol for years. Many considered his sexuality to be old news, especially since Ashburn terms out this year and his political future is uncertain. He didn’t pursue rumored bids for the Board of Equalization and Congress. In his interview with Barks, he said he dropped the idea of a congressional bid due to his sexuality.
A number of people told Capitol Weekly that Ashburn has been a regular at Sacramento gay bars for at least two years. Some said Ashburn became more brazen after his local paper, The Bakersfield Californian, laid off longtime Sacramento bureau chief Vic Pollard in 2007. Pollard had a reputation for dealing aggressively with politicians and breaking major stories about them, such as his report on Rep. Bill Thomas, who was married and then the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, for having an affair in 2001. Thomas was Ashburn’s political mentor and former employer.
Pollard, who still freelances for the paper and writes for the Capitol Morning Report, said that calls and emails about Ashburn’s sexuality “rose and fell in waves,” first back in 2004, then again last year. Last summer, the paper’s Lois Henry asked Ashburn if he was gay. Ashburn refused to answer. But Pollard said the paper had no interest in outing Ashburn “for the sake of outing him.”
About the only openly gay member of the Sacramento political class who commented on the record to reporters about Ashburn’s case in the first two days after the DUI was West Sacramento Chris Cabaldon. In response to questions from the Capitol Weekly and other outlets, Cabaldon said he had “frequently” seen Ashburn at a pair of gay bars, Badlands and The Depot. An owner of those bars declined comment, saying that she puts a priority on the privacy of her customers. Cabaldon also posted a similar comment on his Facebook page last fall, something which briefly causes a buzz around the Capitol at the time but wasn’t widely reported until KCRA 13 TV referred to it in a report on Ashburn last week.
“I know I’m supposed to tiptoe around this, but to me it’s not scandalous to be gay,” Cabaldon told the Capitol Weekly. “I don’t see that’s it’s my responsibility to protect him.”
Cabaldon only came out himself in 2006, and said he understands “the fear and anxiety” of doing so while working in politics. But he added that he decided to speak up because of Ashburn’s voting record against gay rights. Since 2001, Ashburn has a cumulative 6 percent gay rights voting record, according to Equality California.
“There have been men attacked outside Badlands for being gay,” Cabaldon said. “He’s voted against laws that would protect them. But he’s going there with a reasonable expectation that he will be safe.”
Karger also came up in Republican politics, and only came out publically in 2006. He said that a few weeks ago he was in Sacramento, having dinner with several other gay men working in politics. They extended an invitation to him to come to trivia night afterwards at Faces, the gay-friendly bar which Ashburn
had left with another man shortly before getting a DUI.
“They said, ‘Roy Ashburn will be there,’” Karger said. “I almost spit my food out.”
Back in 1982, Karger said, he’d worked with Ashburn on the George Deukmejian’s campaign for governor, at a time when Ashburn was part of a crew of political up-and-comers working under Thomas. Karger said he’d had no idea Ashburn was gay. More recently, Karger said, he’d given money to Ashburn’s campaigns, and got a Christmas card from Ashburn’s family each year in return.
Karger said he’s been “impressed” with how gay political leaders have handled the Ashburn situation—especially Kuehl, who characterized Ashburn as being on a “journey.” And he’s been impressed with Ashburn himself.
“My hat is off to Roy,” Karger said. “Hopefully he’ll be a great asset to our civil rights movement. We’re way short of Republicans in this thing.”