After State Lawmaker Comes Out, Campaign Becomes Battle Of Write-ins

fromWPSU

How much does sexual orientation matter to voters in rural Pennsylvania? Incumbent Mike Fleck, who was re-elected three times before he came out as gay in 2012, lost the Republican state house primary to a write-in candidate. But he's not out of the race yet: He won as a write-in on the Democratic ballot instead.

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Now to the results of an unusual primary race, in a rural Pennsylvania district. A four-term Republican state legislator lost his party's re-election bid to a write-in candidate. His supporters say it could be because he came out as gay after his last election. From member station WPSU, Kate Lao Shaffner takes us to Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, for more.

KATE LAO SHAFFNER, BYLINE: The primary was Mike Fleck's first election since he announced he is gay in 2012. He's believed to be one of just two sitting openly gay Republican state legislators in the country. Before he came out, he'd been re-elected unchallenged, three times.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE MIKE FLECK: I knew that this election was out of my hands. This race certainly came down to me being gay, and there's no denying that at the end of the day.

SHAFFNER: Fleck's write in opponent, who won the Republican ticket, is Huntingdon County treasurer Rich Irvin. Irvin says he campaigned for the seat, not against Fleck or his sexual orientation.

RICHARD IRVIN: I do understand, there was negative attacks against Representative Fleck for his sexual orientation, but not from the Committee to Elect Rich Irvin.

SHAFFNER: In downtown Huntingdon just a stone's throw from Fleck's district office, Leanne Hammond is sitting on a park bench with her dog. She says she doesn't think a candidate's personal life should factor in a vote. But she knows others in town who disagree. Hammond owns a barbershop and hears a lot of the town gossip.

LEANNE HAMMOND: A lot of the customers that come in have talked about the issues. The older generation and the conservatives do have a problem with his coming out.

SHAFFNER: Hammond herself is a Republican. She voted for Fleck. Doc Rudy is tending a garden at the Episcopal church nearby. Rudy voted for Irvin, but he says it's because he's ready for a change, not because of Fleck's sexual orientation - at least for him.

DOC RUDY: The gay issue had nothing to do with it.

TERRY MADONNA: It's a combination of factors that resulted in his defeat. But I don't think you can deny that the fact that he was openly gay played a role in it.

SHAFFNER: That's Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. He says Fleck's is likely due to a number of things - yes, the fact that he came out as gay in a very conservative district - but also the involvement of an outside interest group, which sent mailers to voters accusing Fleck of not being conservative enough. And Madonna says opponent Rich Irvin put up a good fight.

MADONNA: Now, the Irvin campaign was very well-organized. The one thing I've learned after 35 years of studying American and Pennsylvania politics is running a write-in campaign is very, very difficult.

SHAFFNER: But that's not the end of the story. Fleck may have lost the Republican vote, but there was no official Democratic candidate. And get this - Fleck managed to win that ticket as a write-in. So he'll be on the ballot in November as a Democrat, even though he doesn't plan to switch parties. The race may come down to not only whether voters in the largely conservative 81st District will support a gay candidate, but also whether they're willing to vote across party lines. And Madonna wonders if the small town of Huntingdon might become a staging ground for gay advocacy.

MADONNA: His defeat received a great deal of national attention and we could well see, you know, interest groups involved in this race in ways that we did not see before.

SHAFFNER: Madonna says gay advocacy groups could come in to campaign on Fleck's behalf, if he's willing to let them. Fleck has said he doesn't want to be defined by sexual orientation, but by his record and his position on the district's key issues. For NPR News, I'm Kate Lao Shaffner in State College, Pennsylvania.

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