interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The February 23 meeting of the San Diego Democrats for Equality featured a dramatic moment when Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, former president of the San Diego County chapter of the Log Cabin Club, a nationwide organization of Queer Republicans, came to the front of the room. He sat at the speakers’ table and, with current Democrats for Equality president Doug Case and former president Jeri Dilno looking on, filled out a voter registration form and re-affiliated with the Democratic Party.
Though only 24, Rodriguez-Kennedy is no stranger to the public eye. He first emerged in the media in October 2010, when he unsuccessfully tried to re-enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps following a court ruling that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy under which he’d been discharged was unconstitutional. The lawsuit, filed by the national Log Cabin Club, was declared moot and thrown out by the courts after an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Congress at the end of 2010, ended “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
That fall, he also published an endorsement column on the gay-sd.com Web site in which he supported openly Gay Republicans like Assembly candidate Ralph Denney (who lost to openly Lesbian Democrat Toni Atkins in a strongly Democratic district) and moderate straight Republicans like County Supervisor Ron Roberts. But he also endorsed the controversial City Council candidate Lorie Zapf, despite her having written e-mails to self-proclaimed “ex-Gay” James Hartline stating that she didn’t think Queer people were qualified to hold elective office. “She definitely has changed,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said of Zapf — who won, though her victory had more to do with anti-union sentiment in her district than her relations with the Queer community.
Rodriguez-Kennedy left the Log Cabin Club presidency in April 2011 under a cloud after he admitted using the club’s debit card for $100 worth of personal purchases. “There was no problem,” he told San Diego CityBeat reporter Dave Maass — he repaid the club’s account as soon as he realized what had happened — “but some on the board thought that was an egregious mistake.” He also pointed to all his other community involvements, including his membership on the board of San Diego Pride and the San Diego County Veterans’ Advisory Council, and said that his replacement as Log Cabin president, Vicki Kerley, was someone he’d hand-picked to run as the club’s vice-president.
Just why Rodriguez-Kennedy decided to leave the Republican Party has been a bit of a mystery. At the February 23 Democrats for Equality meeting, his Pride board colleague Jeri Dilno (who, ironically, also started her political life as a Republican!) took credit for having brought him around and recruited him to switch parties. (She also admitted that his dramatic re-registration at the meeting was strictly for show; he’d already filled out and mailed in his new voter registration form.) CityBeat reported that the last straw had been the ascendancy of strongly anti-Queer candidate Rick Santorum in this year’s race for the Republican Presidential nomination. Zenger’s decided to seek an interview with Rodriguez-Kennedy and get the story firsthand.
Zenger’s: Tell me a little about your background, how you got in the military, when you came out and when you entered politics.
Will Rodriguez-Kennedy: I’m from New York City, but I spent half my childhood between there and Orlando, Florida. I joined the Marines when I was 17, right after I graduated from high school — I graduated early — and I went to the Marine Corps and got stationed in Hawai’i, which was a pretty good posting. We deployed to Iraq in 2007.
I knew I was Gay when I was 15, but I kept it out of my military stuff. But there was a lance corporal who was under me, a female, who didn’t like me at all. So she made up the rumor that I was Gay, and that led me to getting discharged. I got honorably discharged, so it was good — as good as you could possibly get — but that situation, and my ignorance of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, led me to do more research and get more active politically.
In 2008, when I had just got out, I had gravitated to the Log Cabin Republicans after the Clinton and Obama primary. I had met Hillary Clinton twice, and she was my home-state Senator, so I was totally a Clinton fanatic. I decided to register as a Republican because I felt disenfranchised when Clinton lost the primary. I was really invested in that, and what really stuck with me was how they treated Clinton, because there was a lot of negative campaigning against Clinton — not from Obama himself, because he never went negative in the campaign, but a lot of his surrogates were very negative towards Clinton, and there were a lot of sexist things that came out.
I didn’t like that, so I made my detour to the Republican Party there for a while. I got active, became president of the local Log Cabin chapter, became a delegate to the state party and an alternate to the Central Committee, and got active in the LGBT [Queer] community. I came to the San Diego Pride board. I’m a county commissioner on the Veterans’ Advisory Council. I do a lot of things.
I was always sort of in the middle on a lot of things, because I’m young. There were a lot of areas that I hadn’t formed opinions on, but towards the last year and a half I’ve thought that the Republican Party was way too Right for me. I’ve never liked the Tea Party. The worst arguments I’ve ever got into were with Tea Party members. That was what started my path away from the Republican Party, and then I left the Log Cabin Republicans. I have a lot of Democrat friends.
This year’s Presidential primary was definitely the straw, because the only person I could possibly see backing was Jon Huntsman. I like some of the things Ron Paul says, but the other things are just crazy. Then we have [openly Gay City Councilmember and Mayoral candidate] Carl DeMaio, locally, and if I’m on his side there’s just no way I’m in the right place. So I decided to switch. I really switched back, I should say.
Zenger’s: That’s kind of interesting, because to prepare for this interview I re-read your commentary on the 2010 elections, and your down-the-line Republican endorsements, including defending [City Councilmember] Lorie Zapf against the charge of homophobia.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Yeah, I know. I had no problem saying that the board had endorsed this person, the organization has done that. I didn’t vote on a lot of those endorsements, because I was president. I was chairing meetings, and endorsement meetings are usually done by the board. It’s really different from the SDDE [San Diego Democrats for Equality], where you have the general membership [voting on endorsements].
Lorie Zapf was very nice to me. She had told me that she had changed, so I just took her at face value, and at the time I was working for Carl DeMaio, so that shows you just how lost I was.
Zenger’s: As I recall your article began with a kind of half-hearted acknowledgment that the Republican Party was really not that Gay-friendly, and I couldn’t help but think of the old joke that being a Gay Republican is like being a Jewish Nazi.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: I wouldn’t say that. I’m always really hesitant to invoke such strong language in that area, because when you think about what the Nazis did to the Jewish community, the genocide, I never liked trying to make those comparisons, but the positions of the Republican Party are not Gay-friendly. It’s not really something you can say with a straight face.
The only thing you can say to the salvation of the party is that there’s the younger generation that looks like it’s changing. I think Dave Rolland from CityBeat said it best when he said to a group of moderate Republicans, “You’re basically waiting for the old bigoted class of your party to die.” There are a lot of young Republicans who are way more progressive in their social leanings and more understanding. I mean, look at [Assemblymember and Mayoral candidate] Nathan Fletcher, and you can see the difference between him and, say, Rick Santorum, or even Carl DeMaio locally.
Zenger’s: There are two openly Queer people running for Mayor of San Diego as Republicans [Carl DeMaio and Bonnie Dumanis]. Based on your insight as the former chair, why did the Log Cabin Club reject both of them and endorse the straight Republican, Nathan Fletcher?
Rodriguez-Kennedy: I wasn’t the president when it was done, but from what I understand, first of all, one of the Republican candidates didn’t attend their pre-endorsement process. I think they did have a meeting with Bonnie [Dumanis], but Carl DeMaio didn’t attend their endorsement process. And if you’ll recall, Bonnie had said at that time that she wasn’t going to campaign until 2012, and she didn’t really start campaigning until 2012. You had CityBeat and other organizations criticizing her for not campaigning earlier, like Carl DeMaio and Nathan Fletcher.
I still support Nathan Fletcher for Mayor. I guess this is a Marine bond, because Nathan Fletcher is a Marine and he’s a good friend of mine. He’s pretty much the only Republican I’ll support this year. When you look at positions on LGBT issues, having been on the Central Committee, I know from the inside that if Carl goes to a pro-Gay rally, or Bonnie goes to a pro-Gay rally, they get a pass because they’re Gay. It’s just something that Republicans have factored into their minds.
Nathan Fletcher gets called a panderer when he does the right thing. impassioned plea on the [California State Assembly] floor for “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal is definitely more than Carl or Bonnie have done. And if you look at recent LGBT events — like the Imperial Court coronation or the Victory Fund fundraiser, Bonnie and Nathan have been there. Carl DeMaio was absent for those events.
I think the reason they didn’t endorse Bonnie was because she wasn’t campaigning as hard as Nathan. And Carl DeMaio didn’t get the endorsement because, a) he’s had a lot of bad, negative encounters with some of those members of the board, and b) he didn’t attend the pre-endorsement process. He’s been very hostile towards some of the members of that board.
Zenger’s: So you’re describing your political odyssey not from Republican to Democrat, but from Democrat to Republican to Democrat.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Well, I wouldn’t say Democrat, because the first time I was old enough to vote, I registered as an independent. This will be the first time [I will vote as a registered Democrat].
Zenger’s: Aside from the party labels, how would you describe your politics now? The Republicans are always saying they’re for small government, lower taxes, fewer regulations — at least fewer regulations on business: a lot more regulations on people’s personal lives.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: For the most part I’m a progressive. When you talk about social change and social justice and things like that, I’m definitely progressive. I’m pro-Gay, pro-woman, and when it comes to immigration I support the DREAM Act and stuff like that. The only Republican tendencies I do have that remain is I’m very supportive of the Second Amendment, and even there I understand there needs to be reasonable common-sense restrictions. Obviously someone shouldn’t have a 50-calibre assault weapon.
Financially, I think that the government has a responsibility to promote the general welfare. That’s in the Constitution, and so I’m cool with that. But we have to address debt things. We have to figure out ways to finance the social safety net and things for the social good. I hate to say it, because in the Republican Party this is blasphemy, but you have to tax higher-income earners, and you have to close the corporate loopholes that allow companies like General Electric not to pay taxes at all in some years. That’s unacceptable. We have to tax the rich to some degree more than [they are now]. Even Warren Buffett says he could be taxed more, and that’s fine. He’s a billionaire.
Zenger’s: Guess who the last President who seriously tried to close the corporate tax loopholes was: Ronald Reagan. So it’s not like this is an unheard-of position in the Republican Party, although it seems to be so now.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Well, if you look at it now, Ronald Reagan could not be elected in this party. There’s no way. You ever watch The Daily Show, Al Madrigal said, “Nobody alive or fictitious could actually be supported by the Tea Parties now, because Ronald Reagan was a Hollywood Commie who raised taxes, grew government and gave amnesty to illegal immigrants. He ain’t allied with these people.” And it’s true.
The party of today is nothing like the Reagan coalition, or even the Goldwater coalition. There are a lot of old Goldwater people who are now Democrats. They’re nothing like Eisenhower or Theodore Roosevelt, who were progressives. They’re nothing like Lincoln. Those people have more in common with the Democratic Party today than they do with the Republican Party today. I mean, if you look at their social policy, it’s more theocratic and it’s borderline on fascism.
Zenger’s: I thought you said you were going to avoid comparisons like that! Why would you say “bordering on fascism”?
Rodriguez-Kennedy: I wouldn’t compare them to a fascist regime, but I would say their policies are corporatist. They’re very favorable to corporations, and they’re very restrictive on the social lives of the populace. And that’s very authoritarian. They’re always talking about “religious liberties.” All right. They’re defining marriage from a Christian perspective. What if there’s another religion that has a different view?
Zenger’s: That sounds like my last editorial, where I said, “Where’s our religious liberty?” Where’s the religious liberty of churches that want to marry same-sex couples?
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Absolutely, absolutely. And there are. There are MCC and things like that, and the Episcopalian Church that has an openly Gay bishop.
Zenger’s: And the United Church of Christ, which has done TV commercials with same-sex couples saying, “We welcome you.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy: We don’t see much of that. And when you saw the panels in the Congressional hearing on contraception [chaired by North County Republican Congressmember Darrell Issa], all you saw was a bunch of older Catholic men. I think there were a couple of rabbis. When they’re talk about “religious freedom,” it is a very specific brand of religious freedom. And that’s not in keeping with what I believe about this government and the principles that founded us, or why the First Amendment exists: Congress shall make no law regarding religion. That means for or against. There is a separation of church and state, and anybody who says differently is wrong.
And these “conservatives” aren’t really Constitutional conservatives. Ron Paul would be a Constitutional conservative. The others are religious conservatives. Their primary document, which defines their beliefs, starts, “In the beginning.” It doesn’t start, “We the people.” And that’s a significant difference between the conservatives of Barry Goldwater’s day and the conservatives of today. That’s a significant difference. The conservatives of Goldwater’s day were more in line with classical liberalism.
Zenger’s: In your days as the Log Cabin Club president, in your published commentary, you opposed the proposal on the ballot to increase the city sales tax. Is that still a position you would take?
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Yes, at the moment I would oppose the sales tax. The people have spoken on that. My position was closer to what Donna Frye’s was when she first voted against the sales tax, when she said, “We haven’t done enough on the city side to then ask the people for a sales tax.” But now that labor has made some concessions and they’re about to save us $700 million without this pension reform, I do definitely oppose this pension reform. There are a million problems with that.
I don’t think it’s necessary [to change the city pension system] now. I think labor has come and made some concessions, and they’re willing to bargain in good faith. And I think that nobody really wants the city to fail, because everybody loses then. So these characterizations by the Right that, “Oh, Big Labor is running City Hall,” to say that labor wants to run City Hall into the ground, and that’s their purpose, that’s just crazy. It’s crazy talk. Nobody wants the city to fail, because they work for the city and that’s their livelihoods.
Zenger’s: I know your “frenemy,” Carl DeMaio, said, “I want to be the Scott Walker of San Diego.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Yes, he’s actually used the language. He wants San Diego to be the Wisconsin of the West.
Zenger’s: And whereas Scott Walker is fighting for his political life right now, Carl DeMaio is at this point the favored candidate for Mayor, the one who’s leading in all the polls. Why do you think his agenda is so popular?
Rodriguez-Kennedy: It’s popular among his base. If you look at Carl DeMaio’s poll numbers, they’ve never been above 25-ish threshold. And even if it reached 30, that would still say that 70 percent of San Diegans oppose his position. So when Carl DeMaio enters the general election — if he enters the general election, and I would project that he would — it’s most likely that these people whose position is “Anybody but Carl DeMaio” will coalesce around that person, and that will be the more popular position. So I would disagree with the point that he is “popular,” overall at least.
Zenger’s: He will almost certainly end up in the runoff. He will probably place first in the primary.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Possibly. Most likely.
Zenger’s: And a lot of it would seem to depend on who places second.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: If [the only major Democrat in the race, Congressmember Bob] Filner campaigns, he doesn’t have to place first, because he does have a Democratic base. If you look at the numbers, everybody pretty much has 25 to 30 percent. Carl has 25 to 30 percent. Bob could have 25 to 30 percent. Then the rest can coalesce around a third candidate.
Zenger’s: I did want to ask you about this odd mini-scandal you were involved in, that cost you the presidency of the Log Cabin Club. From what I know about how the Right thinks, there will probably be people who’ll say, “Oh, well, he just got pushed out of the presidency, and that’s what embittered him, and he decided to get his revenge by becoming a Democrat.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Well, that would be a mischaracterization because I waited so long to do it. If I had done it immediately, that would make sense. I’m still really cool with members of the leadership of the Log Cabin Club. What happened with Log Cabin was that I had suffered a very bitter divorce with my partner of two years, and so I accidentally made a mistake. I came clean, and I actually hand-picked my successor. Vicki Kerley was my vice-president. I had her elected vice-president. So there’s really no relation.
Zenger’s: What would you say to people, particularly on the Left, who say there’s really no difference between the Republican and Democratic parties?
Rodriguez-Kennedy: There are a lot of people who have that feeling, especially people of my generation: “There’s no difference. It’s like, when I go to the ballot box, I’m choosing the lesser of two evils.” Sometimes that is the case. And that happens in a two-party system. But remember we’re a candidate-centered democracy. It’s not like Britain, where you vote for parties rather than candidates you like. Here in America, individuals can actually change the party system and have substantial impact on the party system.
So to say that the parties are two of the same — I could see where people are coming from, but there are significant ideological differences that exist today. Now if you look at the parties, they’ve switched ideologies at some point. I mean, all you have to do is think back to the Dixie Democrats. Party platforms change, and they change depending on which people show up. So to say that they’re the same, I would disagree.
Zenger’s: What most of the people who say that — particularly the ones on the Left, the ones in places like the Occupy movement — are saying is that both parties rely on wealthy individuals and corporations to finance their campaigns, and therefore they are both doing the bidding of Wall Street, doing what the 1 percent want them to do, and both come together for things like bailing out the financial sector.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: A Republican-led initiative! TARP was Republican.
Zenger’s: Making sure that, whatever happens, the huge banks remain whole, and in fact there are fewer of them, and they are larger now, than they were then. It was indeed a bipartisan program to deregulate the economy as much as it was, starting with Jimmy Carter in the 1970’s and continuing since. So that’s what they’re usually talking about when they say that the parties are the same, particularly on the issues of finance and wealth and income, and who gets taxed.
Rodriguez-Kennedy: I think I would agree with the 99-percenters in the sense that this country went wrong when we started defining corporations as individuals, and then equating free speech to monetary contributions. Through super-PAC’s and things like that, we have a lot of opportunities now for people like the three or four rich people who are backing either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, or insert candidate name here — and even Obama has some very rich donors — to influence elections. I definitely things like Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, I think that was definitely a bad decision.
If corporations are people, then we have to tax them like people — and we certainly don’t. We have to stop a lot of things that corporations are getting away with. I hate it every time I hear a clip of Mitt Romney saying, “Corporations are people too, my friend,” I just want to scream, because that’s ridiculous. People are people. I have no problem with rich people donating, but there must be a way to balance that, because then it’s not really a democracy if we’re just allowing people to buy offices. I like public financing.
Zenger’s: The counter-argument to that was expressed by Justice Scalia in an earlier opinion that Justice Kennedy quoted in Citizens United, that because the corporations are the prime movers of our economy, they should have more of a political voice than anyone else. [Scalia’s actual words were that any restriction on the power of corporations to donate to elections “muffles the voices that best represent the most significant segments of the economy.” Citizens United, p. 38.]
Rodriguez-Kennedy: That’s a terrible idea. It is keeping with Scalia’s philosophy on this matter, but democracy is about people. And that’s what we need to bring it back down to. That stuff is a danger to our democracy. When I joined the Marine Corps, I swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. There’s nothing in the Constitution about corporatism and corporate individualism, and I think that it was a mistake that the Supreme Court took those positions and have now had those positions incorporated into our current legal system. Citizens United also took out one of my favorite candidates, so I guess I have a little bit of bias there, because they did attack Hillary Clinton!
Zenger’s: That’s an interesting difference between our perspectives. I was a long-time Democrat who was fiercely partisan for Obama because Bill Clinton’s Presidency had been such a disappointment, the last thing I wanted was a rerun! And I also figured — and I wrote this in an editorial at the time — that Hillary would have the Groundhog Day factor working against her: that people would vote thinking, “Do I really want the history books to say that that run of Presidents was Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton?”
Rodriguez-Kennedy: That was definitely working against her, because her name was definitely an Establishment name. It was an incumbent-sounding name. Everyone knows “Clinton.” So I do think that worked against her, because in that time frame an outsider was definitely what the people wanted.
Zenger’s: Do you think that Obama’s race has anything to do with the venom with which the Republicans have attacked him, or is this kind of a well-honed attack machine that they will push at anybody the Democrats put up?
Rodriguez-Kennedy: I wouldn’t say it with Obama. I would say that when racism plays a part in it, a lot of their positions on Latinos are closer to racism. You have people who saying things like Newt Gingrich saying Spanish is “the language of the ghetto,” and that gets a pass. There is a certain racist tendency towards African-Americans that you get with Rick Santorum saying something about African-Americans and welfare.
Zenger’s: He said, “I don’t want to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Despite the fact that white people make up the majority of welfare rolls. That doesn’t make sense to me. But there are racially charged statements like that that do exist. I’m not sure I would say that it is purely racism that plays into the venom of the Republican Party. But then again, if you look at the local Republican Party, I’m not sure that there is a person of color on their executive board, and I think that a lack of diversity in the party at least opens them up to that charge, and that speculation. It has created the perception that there are racial charges in their attacks, and by creating that perception, that is their fault, and they should change. There needs to be more diversity in the Republican Party, that’s for sure. Then they wouldn’t have all these problems.
Zenger’s: Though I’ve got the impression that as long as you sign on to this extreme-Right agenda, they will accept you no matter what you are. If you’re a Black person or a Latino or a woman or a Queer who signs on to it, they’ll say, “Wow! We’re not against them. We’ve got this person. We’ve got that person.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy: You see, what bothers me about that perception is that that’s what a lot of Carl DeMaio’s supporters are saying. “People like Roger Hedgecock and Doug Manchester and the Caster family, they’re supporting Carl DeMaio, so they must have changed. That’s a pro-Gay thing to do.” No, that’s not a pro-Gay thing to do, to support Carl DeMaio. The Casters and all them will still give to NOM [the National Organization for Marriage], they’ll still give to take away marriage equality rights for LGBT Americans. They are not changing their positions. They’ve just found a puppet for them, that benefits them financially.
You’re talking about moneyed interests who bankrolled taking away a right from hundreds of thousands of LGBT people in California. I hate that position because people say that as an “out” for Carl. I don’t think that them supporting a Gay candidate necessarily means that they support Gay rights. And I don’t believe that supporting a Gay candidate necessarily means you support Gay rights. Where was Carl DeMaio on Proposition 8? He didn’t say anything until after Proposition 8 had already passed. Where was he? It was his responsibility as a leader. He may not be the “Gay Councilmember,” but he still has a responsibility to his community. I mean, I’m definitely condemning of that position.
Zenger’s: Yes, that does seem to be Carl’s attitude: “Let Todd Gloria be the ‘Gay Councilmember.’ He’s representing the one-third Gay district. I don’t have to represent Gays because that’s not my constituency.”
Rodriguez-Kennedy: I’ll tell you straight up that is Carl’s attitude. Exactly. But you’ll see him in little photo ops when Todd Gloria puts something forward, a Pride resolution or something like that. You’ll see Carl DeMaio jump into the photo shot, that’s for sure.
Zenger’s: So what do you see as your future?
Rodriguez-Kennedy: Right now I work for LGBT Weekly. I’m going to finish my degree in communications and I’m going to continue serving. I have a passion for service. That’s why I joined the Marine Corps: I wanted to serve my country. That’s why I serve on the Pride board and serving the veterans’ community. I do like the idea of running for public office one day, but right now I’m going to continue fighting for our rights: fighting for LGBT’s, fighting for veterans, and see where that takes me in the future.