Nick Kor has long been intrigued by the idea of running for office. But he didn’t know when — or how — he might try to make that happen.
That changed this summer, after the 30-year-old Minneapolis resident, who is gay, came across a WorldPride event in New York highlighting the growing number of openly LGBT people serving in public office.
“There was just something that was really inspiring about that for me, thinking about being able to see yourself in leadership in politics,” Kor said. “When I grew up, that didn’t exist.”
This weekend, Kor is getting a taste of what it might take to make his ambition of running a reality. He’s one of about 50 political hopefuls attending a four-day training in Minneapolis specifically tailored to potential candidates from the LGBT community.
The goal of the boot camp, hosted by the LGBTQ Victory Institute, is to build on recent gains for representation in politics. The national advocacy group, which also runs a political action committee, saw a record 700-plus candidates run for office in what activists have dubbed the “rainbow wave” of 2018. More than 300 won, including two Minnesota Democrats: 2nd District U.S. Rep. Angie Craig and state Rep. Hunter Cantrell of Savage.
Supporters of more diversity and representation in politics say electing more LGBT people to office ensures the community has a voice in the policymaking process. Even with the 2018 wins, the roughly 700 “out” individuals serving nationwide represent just 0.14% of all elected officials.
“We can’t get complacent,” said Davis Senseman, an attorney from northeast Minneapolis who signed up to get a more holistic sense of what it takes to run. “If you don’t have someone who is a member of your community and understands your issue at the table, it can get lost,” she said.
Trainings like the one hosted by the Victory Institute are meant to create a pipeline of candidates primed to win a seat at that table. Sessions cover topics from creating a campaign plan and raising cash to utilizing voter data to run an effective door-knocking campaign.
But unlike other candidate boot camps, the agenda also includes discussions on things like talking about sexual orientation and gender identity on the campaign trail.
“Ninety percent of [candidate] trainings are the same. But for us, that difference is often about helping out candidates manage their own narrative,” said Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor now at the helm of the Victory Institute. “It’s to help people navigate their own narrative about who they are, but also craft a campaign plan that’s successful.”
That combination was a major draw for Kor. In addition to the nuts and bolts of campaign management, he hopes the workshop will leave him with a better idea of how to run for office “as my full self.”
“Being able to share my story authentically for people and being able to talk to my community and other communities in authentic ways is really important,” he said. “And that’s something I want to develop more.”
Craig, the first openly gay member of Congress from Minnesota, endorses that approach. The Eagan Democrat, a mother, is also an alumna of a Victory Institute training. During a Thursday evening welcome reception, Craig reflected on how her approach to sharing her personal life on the campaign trail changed over her two runs for office.
“I wasn’t being authentic, I didn’t talk enough about my family,” Craig said of her narrow 2016 loss. “Because at the end of the day what people want to know is that they feel like they know who you are, all of you.”
In 2018, the former medical device industry executive said she took a different approach. Her first ad included the words “my wife Cheryl and our four sons.” In a year that saw gains for Democrats nationwide, Craig won that race by 6 percentage points.
“Be yourself,” she told attendees. “Talk about the issues that your constituents care about, but voters can tell if you’re not being all of you.”
Minnesota was in many ways an early leader in electing LGBT people to office. Longtime state Sen. Allan Spear gained national attention after coming out as one of the first openly gay politicians in the country in the 1970s. More recently, the city of Minneapolis made headlines and history when voters elected Phillipe Cunningham and Andrea Jenkins, both of whom are transgender, to the City Council. But today, just two of the 201 members of the state Legislature — Cantrell and DFL state Sen. Scott Dibble — are openly gay.
“We have a good historical precedent for having LGBTQ candidates run and win and be effective elected officials, but I think we could have more,” said Monica Meyer, executive director of the state-based advocacy group OutFront Minnesota. “More representation would be beneficial to communities around the state.”
Advocates say growing acceptance, particularly among liberal and young voters, is creating more opportunity for LGBT people to run and win. Parker, who made history as one of the first openly gay mayors of a major U.S. city in 2009, has seen that shift firsthand.
“I don’t think its necessarily easier to run as an openly LGBTQ candidate, but it is different,” she said. “People aren’t surprised. There’s so much more openness around issues of sexual orientation.”
But even in progressive enclaves, running as an LGBT person isn’t without unique challenges or risks. Facing questions (and sometimes attacks) based on sexual or gender identity, vs. policy issues, can be frustrating for queer and trans candidates. Meyer said it’s not uncommon to encounter folks who want to run but are “afraid of putting themselves and their whole lives out there and having people be hateful or discriminatory.”
Senseman, who is 42, encountered those issues when working for a queer candidate for local office.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Senseman said. “Some people are going to be really excited because they finally feel represented, and some people are going to really be threatened because they’re going to think, ‘This is gnawing at my privilege.’ ”
Senseman is among the dozen Minnesotans participating in the weekend training, one of several the Victory Institute is holding across the country ahead of the 2020 election. Other participants came from as far as California, Colorado and Kentucky.
Kyla Paterson traveled to the training from Iowa City to prepare for her primary challenge against a longtime incumbent in the Iowa Legislature.
Bringing new ideas and perspectives to the table, including her experience as a transgender and asexual woman, is central to Paterson’s bid. The 22-year-old Democrat hopes to use her candidacy to persuade colleagues to back priorities for queer advocates such as banning “conversion therapy” and switching to gender-neutral driver’s licenses. But, like other potential candidates, Paterson emphasized that she wants to focus on issues that affect all voters. Water quality and immigration, she said, will be top priorities for her burgeoning campaign.
“The reality is, we need somebody who can talk about our issues, but also raise up those other issues to make sure everyone has a fair fighting shot,” she said.