Come March 7, Dennis Brown should have been well on his way to Sacramento. In his race for the Republican nomination in the state's 67th Assembly District, Brown had nearly a $100,000 fund-raising advantage and the support of powerful party figures—state Senators Ross Johnson (for whom he is a staffer) and John Lewis, as well as Assembly Members Dick Ackerman, Pat Bates, Bill Morrow and Ken Maddox. He also had key financial support from wealthy Orange County Republicans such as Buck Johns.
Then, on Dec. 22, 1999, Brown suddenly surrendered. In a low-key announcement, Brown cited "family considerations" and second thoughts about commuting from his Los Alamitos home to Sacramento.
But was that all there was to it? Perhaps not. Republican Party sources claim that Brown may have been driven from the race for Assemblyman Scott Baugh's seat by the threat of a whisper campaign that would have accused the unmarried, 51-year-old longtime politician of being a homosexual.
As one Republican—who is not a Brown supporter—explained last year, "When the voters hear that Brown is a fiftysomething-year-old single guy living with his mother, he's dead."
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Reached at Johnson's office, Brown refused to answer any questions about the alleged whisper campaign, claiming that as a state employee, he could not discuss politics at work. When asked if the Weekly could contact him elsewhere, Brown said tersely, "No. I have no comment about this," and hung up.
Brown's departure from a race California Journal had called one of the state's "most interesting" leaves fellow conservative and local party activist Jim Righeimer as the likely primary front-runner against moderate Republican Tom Harman, an attorney, in the Republican-dominated coastal North Orange County district.
Righeimer—who describes himself in his formal statement of candidacy as a "parent/business owner"—has the support of Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and Baugh, who is leaving the Legislature because of term limits. Party insiders say they had expected a Brown-Righeimer-Harman contest to be vicious.
"With Dennis Brown dropping out of the race, conservatives don't have a tough decision to make," Righeimer told the Los Angeles Times in late December.
If Brown were in fact the target of a rumor campaign, it would be ironic. While a member of the Assembly from 1978 to 1990, Brown developed a nasty reputation for his take-no-prisoners-style politics. In 1989, for example, he was implicated in grand-jury testimony but not indicted for his role in forging President Ronald Reagan's signature on more than 440,000 pieces of 1986 campaign literature. He also once falsely accused a Democratic rival of connections "to the powerful underworld drug industry."
The irony doesn't end there. As a leader of a group of rabidly conservative Assembly Republicans known derisively as the "cavemen," Brown was decidedly anti-gay in his politics. He once advocated the creation of official government lists of anyone who tested HIV positive. He pegged his less combative Republican colleagues as "squishes." In 1990, the Times called him "one of the Legislature's most extreme conservatives." That same year, Brown—smarting from the Reagan signature scandal and ridiculed for his vehement opposition to environmental-protection laws even after a major oil spill off Huntington Beach—said he had had a born-again religious experience and that God had told him not to seek re-election.
While much of the rest of the world has come to accept alternative lifestyles, the Republican Party still struggles against same-sex carnality. The party frequently sets aside its limited-government, civil-libertarian platform to attack gays and lesbians when it seems expedient to do so—witness this year's Knight Initiative, Proposition 22 on California's March ballot.
On the other hand, some of the party's hardest-working activists are gay—activists whose careers can be destroyed by the mere hint that they're "family members." The party hit its low point in Reagan-era Washington, D.C., when it was learned that some of the GOP's most vociferous right-wing anti-gay activists were closeted homosexuals. To name a few: National Conservative Political Action Committee founder Terry Dolan; Oliver North pal Carl "Spitz" Channell; and Young Americans for Freedom leader Robert Bauman, a Maryland congressman.
A decade later in Orange County, Republicans again found themselves tongue-tied after perennial party activist and would-be congressional candidate Brian Bennett reluctantly outed himself. Bennett was a longtime chief of staff, campaign adviser and travel companion to OC Representative Robert K. Dornan, Congress' most outspoken anti-gay bigot ever. Bennett affectionately referred to the crusty Dornan as "Poppy."
Things got even more bizarre. In February 1998, Rohrabacher accused then-District Attorney Mike Capizzi, another Republican, of officially probing into the congressman's sex life. "I am not a homosexual," Rohrabacher angrily declared on a live OCN broadcast. He is married to his campaign manager, Rhonda Carmony. Last year, California Republicans were rocked again when Michael Huffington, their 1994 U.S. Senate nominee, acknowledged that—despite his marriage—he preferred the companionship of men in the bedroom.
During the past two decades, the OC GOP oddly has been unable to resolve its weird, ugly private/public dance with homosexuality. On the one hand, you have high-ranking party officials who joyously claim gays suffer an "illness" (state Senator Lewis) and that the party will do everything it can to protect a so-called "heterosexual ethic" (ex-Representative Bill Dannemeyer). On the other hand, party officials privately wine and dine and plot strategy with men and women they know and quietly accept as queer Republicans—as long as they remain closeted.
More than 14 years ago, one Orange County Republican said it was time for "people to know that the Republican Party is not made up of bigots." The Brown affair suggests we're still waiting for proof.
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