Former RNC Chair Comes Out, Supports Prop 8 Suit

Mehlman Ken Mehlman’s decision to come out publicly as gay was triggered, at least in part, by his behind-the-scenes role in supporting the federal Prop 8 trial.

For some time now and with no publicity, Mehlman, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and adviser to President Bush, has served as a strategic adviser, communications consultant and fund raiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the org of entertainment and political activists that is pursuing the case, now headed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“He is not someone who has just lent his name to something,” political consultant Chad Griffin, president of the foundation, tells Variety. “He is an integral part of our team.”

Dustin Lance Black, who sits on the foundation’s board, says the announcement is an “incredible coup” for the org.

An invite has just gone out for a $5,000-per-person New York fund-raiser on Sept. 22, where plaintiffs’ attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies will talk about the status of their lawsuit. The event is perhaps most noticeable for the sheer number of Republican and conservative heavyweights who will be on hand. It will be at the home of Paul Singer, a New York hedge fund manager and major contributor to President George W. Bush’s campaigns. Mehlman, Singer and Peter Thiel are listed as co-hosts along with a roster that includes Mary Cheney, Mark Gerson, Benjamin Ginsberg, Margaret Hoover, Michael Huffington, Steve Schmidt, Michael Toner, Mark Wallace and Nicolle Wallace and Christie Todd Whitman.

Mehlman came out in an interview with The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, fully aware that his going public now would generate criticism for why he didn’t do something more back then. The latter refers to the 2004 and 2006 campaigns in which Republicans ran whole-heartedly against gay marriage, capitalizing on bans of same-sex nuptials to drive social conservatives to the polls. Mehlman was Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, and the placement of anti-same sex marriage ballot initiatives in states across the country perhaps helped get him reelected.

Blogger Mike Rogers, wholong has written about Mehlman’s sexuality, immediately chided him as an opportunist. Although he was not involved in the research of the project, Griffin was a producer of the 2009 documentary “Outrage,” which focused on the hypocrisy of closeted politicos, including Mehlman, who work to advance issues that limit gay rights.

Mehlman tells Ambinder, “It’s a legitimate question and one I understand. I can’t change the fact that I wasn’t in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally.”

He adds, “What I do regret, and think a lot about, is that one of the things I talked a lot about in politics was how I tried to expand the party into neighborhoods where the message wasn’t always heard. I didn’t do this in the gay community at all.”

Griffin says that the criticism of Mehlman ignores one of the major goals of their effort: To expand the scope of supporters. He met Mehlman through Olson, who has created waves among some of his conservative friends and colleagues in his decision to take on the case. “Our job should be to get as many people as we can to support marriage equality,” Griffin says. “Ken was the chairman of the Republican party. He worked in the Bush White House. Not only is he on our side, he is working really hard on our behalf.”
 
The foundation is now under the gun to raise a lot of money for what could be a protracted legal battle — with more than $1 million collected since U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision to overturn Prop 8 earlier this month. But besides the Rolodex of contacts that Mehlman brings to their efforts, his revelation bolsters the public relations aspect of the case, a counter to charges that Walker is an activist judge overturning the will of the people. As Ambinder points out, Mehlman is the highest-ranking Republican official to come out as gay.
 
Mehlman’s story, Griffin says, is “further evidence that this is a non partisan issue, that equal rights affects every one of us.”
 
Update: Karen Ocamb adds more details of how Mehlman came to join the foundation’s effort here.
 

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