[ rainbow warrior ]
Perhaps in any other year or district, Fern Kaufman's political weaknesses would be easily recast as selling points.
After all, the fortysomething, who's running for state representative in Chester County, is a rational, buoyant, realistic and scrappy woman. She has close-cropped brown hair and a cadence that hearkens back to her childhood home in the Northeast, right across from Roosevelt Mall. She's been in the pharmacy industry for most of her career, and currently works as a corporate pharmacy director in North Philly.
The problem is, her opponent is the 26th District's 18-year incumbent. She's also apodictically a political newbie — she's never been so much as a class vice president — save for her almost successful run in '08 for the same position. She is a true-blue liberal in the deep-red countryside. And, of course, she's gay.
The latter may not seem like such an electoral handicap when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are posting "It Gets Better" messages on YouTube, but Harrisburg is an anachronistic place: If elected, Kaufman would be the first openly homosexual legislator in Pennsylvania. It's hard not to see her campaign as a challenge to homophobia itself — which is perhaps why you should pay closer attention to this state race than the mostly preordained ones throughout Philly. Her opponent, State Rep. Tim Hennessey, voted for an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state Constitution in 2006; in a 2008 political ad, he called Kaufman a "left-wing extremist" for writing for the online newspaper QUEERtimes.
Conversely, Kaufman is as pro-homo as they get: Chief among her goals is passing legislation that would make it illegal to fire someone because they're gay. In much of Pennsylvania, employers can do this with impunity, and Kaufman says she's suffered through it firsthand. In 2009, she lost her management position at Catholic Health East on the Main Line. "[It was] more of a conservative organization and I was running as a social progressive," she says, "and I don't think they were happy having me there." However, because of state law, "I couldn't even file a complaint with the Human Relations Commission, which is not fair. That's not a gay issue; that's a civil rights issue."
To compound matters, she's a woman, which is almost as much of a fetter; only 27 — or 13 percent — of the commonwealth's 203 representatives are female, which makes ours the sixth most male-dominated state legislature in the country. This homogeneity is, in part, why Councilman Frank DiCicco is endorsing Kaufman — and maybe why she came close to winning in 2008. "The real world is made of men and women, and when you don't have that balance in politics, big issues are left out," he says.
Kaufman adds, "It's about getting a seat at the table. If you don't, you're on the menu, and that's where the LGBTQ community has been for way too long. This way, they have to look me in the eye on the House floor if they want to ban gay marriage. That's extraordinarily powerful."
What's striking is that, despite these drawbacks, Kaufman still garnered 48 percent of the vote in 2008 — leading some to believe that she's a bellwether of state politics. Two years later, Kaufman's gained name recognition, but at the same time, she won't be able to coast on an Obama-boosted Democratic ticket. Does she — and Pennsylvania's gay community — have a chance at that coveted table?
G. Terry Madonna, a Pennsylvania politics scholar at Franklin & Marshall College, is torn. Though he can't recall an openly gay candidate ever running for the state legislature before, he says, "That's not her biggest problem. Her problem is that she's running against an incumbent, and it's an extremely good year for Republicans." However, he points out that Kaufman could capitalize on the fact that "there are relatively few institutions less popular than Harrisburg." With a 25 percent approval rating and Bonusgate lingering in voters' minds, incumbent state legislators are in a similar boat as Republicans in '08. Fundraising bears that out: Kaufman has collected $31,800 since 2009; Hennessey brought in $32,400 during the same time period.
But Kaufman has another hurdle: her unripened politics. Though she'll talk endlessly and articulately about the topics she's familiar with in her real life — gay and civil rights, health care, business and finance — she's green on much else. She supports a severance tax on the Marcellus Shale, but she isn't sure how much it should be, exactly. She's all for campaign finance limits, but again, she doesn't have precise numbers. She wants to rid Harrisburg of wastefulness, and is crystal clear about her desire for an independent office to study the state's fiscal condition; however, she won't say for certain if she'd eliminate walking-around money or lower prison costs or tackle any of those other thousands of issues that've long been criticized as unthrifty. Several times throughout a recent interview, Kaufman said things like, "I have to be honest, I don't have a solid position on that yet," and, "There's no way of knowing that as a political outsider."
But what's worse: Inexperience, or a homophobic, longtime incumbent who supported Attorney General Tom Corbett's lawsuit against the federal government over health care reform, and sponsored only 12 pieces of legislation since 2009? Chester County, which is made up of everything from the mostly black city of Coatesville to the tepid suburbia of West Chester, will make that call.
As for the rest of us watching from across the interstate, perhaps what's most important is not just that Kaufman is running again — but that she seems to have a puncher's chance of winning.