Carl DeMaio’s campaign headquarters in San Diego’s Mira Mesa neighborhood feel like they were rented by someone for whom price was most definitely an object. His staff has fixed the broken windows, ceiling tiles, gaps in the drywall, and light fixtures, and the place has a new coat of paint. But the hallway outside the office is still dank and stale, like one you’d expect to lead to a low-budget private investigator. Above a stack of lawn signs a warning reads: “DO NOT MOVE BOXES. WALL UNSTABLE.”
DeMaio, 39 but still remarkably fresh-faced above his crisp, collared shirt, sits in a corner office on the other side of the unreliable wall. He had been talking a torrent, filling every bit of empty air like a student-council president who’s found someone to debate during lunch. He’s hopped up on caffeine, but his natural enthusiasm and rapid-fire speech pattern also factor heavily into the picture.
Now, as he puts back his fourth cup of coffee of the morning, I ask him about what it was like to come out, and he turns terse. “It was not a big deal,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, really? That’s totally fine, we can take care of that.’ ” He waves his hand dismissively.
When, at 25, DeMaio told his siblings and friends that he was gay, he had just faced down a decade of existential challenges that had left him effectively with no parents to inform. For 10 years, all he had thought about was survival, he says, and by the time he felt able to focus on anything else, he’d already lived the classic up-by-the-bootstraps American Dream. His sexual orientation may make him a “zoo animal” to pundits, he says—“look at the gay Republican”—but to him it is a secondary detail. By the time he had a chance to reckon with his sexuality, his conservatism already defined him.
Indeed, the rundown feel of the building we’re in seems less odd—even for a candidate who had by April of this year raised more money than any Republican challenger for a House seat in the nation—once you know that DeMaio is fairly obsessed with fiscal responsibility and efficiency. That, he will tell you, is who he is. His sexual orientation is another fact about him, but not an especially salient one—which is how he’d like the GOP to treat it as well.
Not only does the party’s opposition to gay marriage cost Republicans votes, DeMaio argues, it’s just not worthy of a place on the GOP’s agenda; not ahead of the $17 trillion national debt. “Social issues” in general, he contends, are a foolish distraction from the mammoth task of reforming government. “There’s a new generation of Republicans coming up that says on social issues, leave us alone,” he says. “That’s where the country is.” (An ABC News/Washington Post poll in March found that 60 percent of Republicans younger than 40 are in favor of gay marriage.)
If DeMaio unseats Democratic Rep. Scott Peters in California’s bellwether 52nd District, he could become the first openly gay Republican to be voted into Congress—or he might have to share that title. Two other candidates for the House in 2014, Dan Innis of New Hampshire and Richard Tisei of Massachusetts, are gay, Republican, and making the same direct appeal to the country’s increasingly libertarian politics. They have said in recent interviews that voters don’t care about sexuality anymore; what matter are fiscal issues and fixing a dysfunctional political system.
Though he featured his partner in a campaign advertisement—holding hands, no less!—DeMaio rarely references being gay in his stump speeches, unless you read between the lines when he says such things as, “We’re more than a label” or “I’m not one of those Republicans.” Like Innis and Tisei (both of whom are married) he supports marriage equality, and says he’s fully prepared to challenge his fellow conservatives when they say something ignorant. But he’s also been criticized for accepting campaign donations from backers of Proposition 8, the state’s now-overturned ban on gay marriage.
This is a new space in American politics, and DeMaio, Innis, and Tisei are three of the first to get there. They are out Republicans who are supportive of—and unapologetically benefiting from—the fight for LGBT equality. But they also aren’t driven by it and don’t want to be defined by it.
ON THE STUMP, DeMaio often talks about arriving in Washington for his first day of classes at Georgetown University with nothing but a duffel bag and $36—the opener to a rags-to-riches narrative that ends with him selling not one but two successful companies for millions when he was just 27 years old. But the crux of his personal story begins much earlier than that.
When Carl was in second grade, his mother, Diane, was diagnosed with breast cancer and given just six months to live. She survived for six years, but the cancer carved away at an already dysfunctional marriage and an unstable family life. DeMaio’s dad, Carl Sr., had always been abusive, he says, but after his mom’s diagnosis, everything got worse. “It was out of control. He was always screaming and yelling,” DeMaio recalls. “It was a very unsafe environment, but I didn’t know any different. I thought that’s what family was.”
Two weeks before Diane’s death, in July 1990, DeMaio says, Carl Sr. took off, leaving Carl, 15, his sister, Susan, 19, and his brother Chris, 14, essentially orphaned. (DeMaio’s father declined to comment for this story, saying he didn’t “want to talk politics.”)
“How can you do this to your kids?” DeMaio says he wondered when his father left. “I never could understand it. I was resentful and angry: ‘Why the fuck did you do this to me?’ But I got to a point where I realized this was a guy who was incapable of being a father. Do you hold someone accountable for that? It got me to a point where I could grieve.”
A judge granted Susan temporary custody of her brothers—along with a restraining order against Carl Sr. DeMaio’s parents were schoolteachers from Dubuque, Iowa, where Carl was born in 1974. Despite their relatively modest incomes, they had moved to well-off Orange County, California, when Carl was a toddler. The children held a yard sale to try to pay the mortgage on their Huntington Beach home, but lost the house to foreclosure. Carl’s grandparents agreed to take in one of the three children; DeMaio says the siblings decided it should be the youngest, Chris.
Carl had no home and no parents, but thanks to his mother he did have somewhere to live. Before she died, she had enrolled him at Georgetown Preparatory School in Maryland—a conduit to Georgetown University, especially for students who loved politics, as Carl did. (He’d learned about the Jesuit-run boarding school as a volunteer on Chris Cox’s successful campaign for the House of Representatives in 1988.) DeMaio’s mother had pressed the school to admit him despite the uncertainty and turmoil in his family. He had been accepted on scholarship and would remain a “resident” student for the rest of his high school years.
"There's a new generation of Republicans coming up that says on social issues, leave us alone," DeMaio says. "That's where the country is."
BACK IN IOWA, DeMaio’s aunt Doreen Barta sometimes babysat Carl and his siblings, and she recalls the middle child as a rambunctious “little dickens” who was always getting into trouble and particularly hard to watch. But by the time Carl arrived at “Prep,” says Charles Zedlewski, a former classmate and longtime friend, he was a real-life Alex P. Keaton. Not just because he was a young Republican—many of the students were—but because he was clearly a teenage adult.
“You definitely got the feeling all through high school that he was for all intents and purposes on his own,” Zedlewski says. “He could get good grades or not, work hard or not. It was all on him. Even as a freshman, it was clear this was like a self-contained person who has figured out how to be self-sufficient.” That first year, DeMaio told one or two of his early friends that he’d been orphaned. For the rest of his time in high school, he tucked his tragedy away. He set his personal life on a shelf and focused on the future.
DeMaio was a classic extracurricular-activities geek at school, Zedlewski says. He joined the debate team, Model UN, the yearbook, and dabbled in theater. Even at that age, he walked the halls with a sense of “manifest destiny,” unafraid to tackle any challenge; Zedlewski recalls that, when DeMaio’s Model UN team was assigned to represent Chile, the future politician arranged a meeting with Chile’s ambassador to the U.S., so his classmates could get a better feel for the country.
Even as a youngster, DeMaio had shared his father’s conservative worldview rather than his mother’s liberal one, he says, but being orphaned thoroughly cemented that philosophy. It taught him that people should rely on themselves. “I think I’ve always been a Republican,” he says. “I believe government can be a part of the solution, but big government is as bad as big business. My core philosophy is about trusting individual freedoms. For me, those values I see more in line with Republican ideology than the Democrats.”
(DeMaio’s communications director, Dave McCulloch, makes a distinction between DeMaio’s mind-set and the common conservative “up by the bootstraps” credo: It’s not that DeMaio believes that if he did it, anyone can, McCulloch says. It’s that DeMaio doesn’t believe that someone else is going to catch you when you fall. He believes we’re all on our own.)
Georgetown University gave DeMaio a partial scholarship; the rest of his tuition he paid for with student loans and a few thousand dollars his mom had set aside for college. At Georgetown, he tapped into an interest in business and fiscal efficiency. He landed a job at the Congressional Institute, and, although he was just a college student, helped the Republican think tank craft the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, which required federal agencies to set performance goals and measure their progress toward them.
The surge in interest in improving government performance created a need the young DeMaio was confident he could fill. In 1998, two years after he graduated from Georgetown, DeMaio decided to launch his own business—a consulting company geared toward eliminating government waste. No banks or government agencies were willing to lend start-up capital to a 23-year-old with no assets, so he maxed out two credit cards to pay for the first seminars held by his new company, The Performance Institute. “I’d already lost everything,” he says of the decision to take the leap. “What’s the worst that can happen to me?” He offered conferences and classes on efficient government management, and by 2005, he later told the journalism nonprofit Voice of San Diego, 10,000 people were coming to his seminars each year, 95 percent of them government workers. (He would sell that company and a spin-off, American Strategic Management Institute, which provided guidance to corporations, for a combined $6 million in 2007.)
Only after he’d launched his first company did Carl begin to think about romance. Until 1999, “I was completely in battle mode,” DeMaio says. “I wasn’t even dating.” Nonetheless, he says, telling his friends and siblings that he was gay was easy, because by then he had built his self-esteem, “brick-by-brick,” on his own. “I was completely comfortable with who I am,” he says.
Perhaps so, but DeMaio is not at all comfortable talking about who he is. With some arm-twisting, he will offer matter-of-fact answers to personal questions—between protestations that the topic is a distraction and that he doesn’t want to “dwell on the past.” He’d rather discuss the issues—or just about anything else.
IN 2002, DeMaio began a gradual transition back to California, commuting between Washington and San Diego. After selling his companies in 2007, he turned his attention to San Diego policy and politics full time. He ran the Citizens Budget Project, a conservative think tank that identified wasteful spending and efficiency opportunities in San Diego’s budget, before winning a seat on the City Council in 2008.
As one of only two Republicans in the government, DeMaio rang alarm bells about San Diego’s cooked books: The city had been intentionally underfunding its pension system since 1996 to make up for a looming budget deficit, and had used fraudulent information to sell investors more than $2.3 billion in bonds. In 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged five San Diego city officials who had resigned after the budget scandal with fraud; four of them later agreed to fines of $25,000 apiece. The crisis left the pension fund with a $1.4 billion deficit, threatening to bankrupt one of the nation’s largest cities. To help clean up the mess, DeMaio sponsored a successful voter initiative to replace the city’s pension program with a 401(k) system. He also worked to defeat the Democrats’ main proposed solution—a sales tax.
Two and a half years into his first term, DeMaio announced a bid for mayor. From the start, he faced an uphill battle. That was partly because he’s gay, but chiefly because, after decades of favoring Republicans for mayor, the city had become largely Democratic. Heading into the election, he enjoyed an apparently comfortable 5-point lead over former U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, according to DeMaio’s internal polling. But on Election Day, a huge percentage of registered voters turned out—many of them Democrats streaming to the polls to cast votes for Barack Obama—and erased DeMaio’s advantage.
Within a year, Filner was forced to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment. DeMaio would have won the resulting special election easily, he says, but by then he had already begun a campaign for Congress, on a platform that includes taking his pension-reform efforts national; requiring legislators to cast a percentage of their votes remotely, via a yet-to-be-developed smartphone app, so they can spend more time in their districts; and tackling immigration reform by securing the borders and developing a plan to grant citizenship to some of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
To make what would seem a tough choice, he began a pro/con list last fall, intending to lay out all the reasons for continuing the push to Washington, and those in favor of scrapping that effort and staying in San Diego. He never made it to the second list. By then, the political power on the City Council had shifted toward the Democrats, and the city had entered into a five-year binding contract with its labor unions. He didn’t see how he’d be able to get much done in that environment. Even with the gridlock in Washington, DeMaio decided to push ahead with his congressional bid.
Coming out wasn't a defining moment for DeMaio; he'd already endured bigger trials.
DEMAIO'S DETERMINATION TO put other priorities ahead of gay rights hasn’t kept opponents of same-sex marriage from working against his candidacy, or from mailing voters in his district literature attacking him for “holding the hand of his gay lover” at a pride parade. His campaign office keeps a log of phone calls from those who leave messages like, “Tell Carl to go to hell,” and DeMaio’s campaign manager once considered carrying a concealed weapon to events. The National Organization for Marriage sent out emails in support of one of DeMaio’s conservative primary opponents, urging right-wing voters to stay away from this “homosexual activist who calls himself a Republican.”
The Peters campaign, meanwhile, is bent on convincing voters that DeMaio is just the opposite—a far-right wolf in moderate Republican clothing. Peters declined to be interviewed for this story, but his office offered up a list of bullet points that essentially make the case that DeMaio is a tea-party shill. In 2011, for example, Peters’s campaign points out, the then-mayoral candidate called the movement the “conscience” of government reform and assured a gathering of tea-party members he would “owe them.” (In response, DeMaio told me, “I’m so happy to take on the tea party. They sit there and beat their chests about how pure they are, but they don’t get anything done.”)
DeMaio’s priority list hasn’t endeared him to gay activists, either. LGBT leaders refuse to endorse him for Congress, just as they opposed his mayoral bid. They say they believe the election of an openly gay Republican—especially this openly gay Republican—would hurt, not help, their cause. Activists routinely turn out to boo DeMaio at his events, and they speak openly about their disdain for any politician who belongs to a party that they say opposes their civil rights. “If you’re LGBT, you don’t see your ability to marry and adopt as ‘social issues,’ ” Stampp Corbin, publisher of San Diego’s LGBT Weekly, tells me. “These are civil-rights issues. Why would Carl run for a party [whose platform] would deny he and his partner those abilities? Why would I want to elect an openly gay Republican to Congress if their platform says they want to deny me my civil rights? When you think your equality in America is less important than anything, you have some issues you need to work out.”
That’s a position held by many gay people, says Donald Haider-Markel, a political-science professor at the University of Kansas and the author of Out and Running, a book on openly gay candidates seeking public office. The common view is that it doesn’t help to elect gay candidates if those candidates don’t prioritize gay rights. “They want policy results,” Haider-Markel says. “To stay away from certain kinds of issues, they see it as a kind of self-loathing.”
DeMaio scoffs at the opposition he faces from LGBT leaders. They won’t support him because they’re worried about losing their own political clout if conservatives come around on gay rights, he insists. “They don’t want the Republican Party to change on LGBT issues,” he tells me. “They want a bogeyman to fundraise off of.”
DESPITE THE CONVERGENCE of forces united in opposition to him, DeMaio has been gaining in the polls. Last month, he faced off against Peters in a nonpartisan “top two” primary, which the incumbent won with 42 percent of the vote. DeMaio took 36 percent—a strong showing, given that there were two other Republican candidates in the mix. A week later, a SurveyUSA poll found DeMaio ahead of Peters, 51 percent to 44 percent. Eighty-eight percent of voters said DeMaio’s sexual orientation made “no difference” to them in determining whether to support him. That, the candidate is convinced, is proof that his constituents are so sick of what’s happening in Congress, and so impressed with his record, that they’re willing to push past the politics of old. (In May, National Journal discovered that DeMaio’s office had plagiarized a report the magazine had produced on congressional pensions. DeMaio subsequently apologized. I spoke to him before that incident.)
DeMaio says he recognizes that the Republican Party is wrong on gay rights, but he’d rather work to change the GOP’s position than become a Democrat. The truth is, he says, he’d prefer to belong to neither party—they’re both “lazy,” and “they’ve grown accustomed to using wedge issues that excite the base and scare the crap out of people”—but he has to caucus with someone. Given the choice, he says, “I believe I have a far better ability to take on the Republican Party, as diminished, damaged, and inadequate as it is on several fronts, and try to change it.”
He is aware that he’s something of a token for the GOP, a potential ticket back to “big tent” status. (“His candidacy has national implications for how the Republican Party is perceived,” read an invitation to an April fundraiser in Palm Springs.) But if his run is a test of whether the party is really ready to look beyond a gay candidate’s sexual orientation, it also hints at a future in which gay voters might someday be more likely to be openly Republican.
Coming out wasn’t a defining moment for DeMaio; he’d already endured bigger trials. And as gay people gain marriage equality, increasing visibility in American culture, and mainstream acceptance in more parts of the country, coming out—and living out—will presumably become less difficult. It will, in other words, be the defining feature of fewer people’s lives. Ironically, the success of the gay-rights movement could be good news for the GOP, allowing more people like Carl DeMaio, Dan Innis, and Richard Tisei to put other priorities at the top of their lists.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dave McCulloch's name and got his title wrong; he is communications director.
Winston Ross, a former national correspondent at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, is a freelance writer living in Eugene, Oregon.
This article appears in the July 12, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Yes, Carl DeMaio Is a Gay Republican.