Counting on Florida: Jim Stork could become the next openly gay man elected to Congress, but while campaigning in his conservative district he's careful about touting that fact.
Stork, 37, is now motivated by a different kind of attack on the United States--one mounted not by terrorists, he says, but by Republicans who are spending out of control and wasting time and resources on things like the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment. He is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to combat them.
But the tall and slender Stork, a soft spoken man with perfectly white teeth, is still trying to hang on to some of that low-key life--particularly the gay part--that he once coveted. As mayor lm supported a number of gay fights measures, including Florida's Dignity for All Students Act. But he doesn't focus on that, instead steering the conversation toward his main campaign issues: fiscal responsibility, education, and health care. "If voters thought flint the only issue I was running on was gay rights, they wouldn't vote for me," he says.
Stork's discomfort with the gay angle illustrates the free line he is trying to walk in the 22nd district, where he is at tempting to unseat 12-term Republican incumbent Clay Shaw. After Shaw, an ultraconservative who recently voted for the antigay Marriage Protection Act in Congress, almost lost to his Democratic rival in 2000, state Republican lawmakers gerrymandered the 22nd district to make it a lot more Republican. "But it's still a Democratic-leaning district," Stork insists. "The people I talk to are the moderates. They're unhappy."
Florida's 22nd is in one of the most contested areas in the country--Al Gore won the district by a slim margin in 2000 but Shaw's campaign manager, Larry Casey, says he is not worried. "Shaw enjoys a great deal of support, even among Democrats," he says, adding that the fact that Stork is gay "bas no bearing whatsoever" on Shaw's campaign. "This is supposed to be a campaign on the issues."
Redistricting has made the 22nd a tough bid for any Democrat, gay or straight, .says Benjamin Bishin, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Miami. "Even when the district was more Democratic it was basically a toss up," he adds. In any case, Bishin says, Stork's trepidation over being too openly gay is probably unwarranted: "This area is fairly progressive." A big Democratic turnout coupled with a lower-than-expected turnout for President Bush is what it will take for Stork to win, he says, "but frankly, I think we will see high turnout from both sides." Stork has been surpassing Shaw in fundraising, Bishin adds, but that may be due to the fact that the Republican Party doesn't see him as a threat. "Given the [close] margin in the House, you can be sure that the GOP will take care of Shaw if [the race] becomes tight," he says.
During the second quarter of 2004, Stork raised $423,584 to Shaw's $415,732. A key factor in Stork's success has been his partner of 18 months, Democratic philanthropist and Massachusetts native Ronald Ansin, who has been connecting Stork with big-money Democrats, including presidential hopeful John Kerry's campaign treasurer, Bob Farmer. "I think there's a real chance to gain back the House of Representatives," Farmer says. "There's a chance if we support these close races. This is one of the top five." Other powerful Democrats agree. Stork has been endorsed by Howard Dean and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. And he has the backing of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which comes with access to its nationwide network of contributors. "Jim has to go up against an entrenched incumbent, but that has been done before," says Victory Fund executive director Chuck Wolfe. "We believe he can win."
Born in Gainesville, Fla., Stork moved to Greensboro, N.C., with his family when he was 4 years old. His father soon left, and his mother once had to work three jobs to support Stork and his older brother, Bill--something Stork now touts as inspiration for his life's ambitions. As a young boy, Stork was already showing signs of becoming a leader, his brother says. "It all makes sense to me now," says Bill Stork, admitting that he was initially surprised to hear that Jim was running for Congress. "I'm not that surprised that he's gay, and I'm also not that surprised that he's politically active. He had a lot of charisma. He was the one who would start a baseball team in the neighborhood. The other kids really seemed to follow him."
Stork became the first member of his family to graduate from college, putting himself through the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, which scholarships and student loans. He came out during his freshman year, and his mother joined the local chapter of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "She had cancer, and she passed away before she could see me graduate," says Stork. "She taught us that we could be anything we wanted to be. If she were alive today, she would be knocking on doors for me."
After graduation Stork moved to New York City, where he formed a business relationship with Richard Campbell Zahn, a doctor who had invented a lip balm to treat herpes blisters. Within a few years, Stork had convinced retail giant Wal-Mart to sell Zahn's product, and Stork, at age 25, was vice president and COO of Zahn's company, Campbell Laboratories. The company moved to Florida, where in 1995 Zahn died of complications from AIDS. A legal scuffle ensued, and Stork was forced out.
That same year, Stork's seven-year relationship with partner Ray Pardue ended in a nasty split, with both parties accusing each other of making death threats. Stork claims Pardue, then 64, "slashed his car tires and stalked him for three years. Later Stork hosted a panel on same-sex domestic violence in Fort Lauderdale. "We tried to get police to take this issue seriously, because when I placed the call, they didn't," he says. "I think domestic violence is something that could be talked "about more. I would be supportive of the federal government having a role in that dialogue."
Stork used the money from a Campbell severance package to open Stork's Bakery and Cafe in Wilton Manors in 1997. At the time the city was beginning a cultural renaissance, and in 2000 it became the second city in the nation (after West Hollywood, Calif.) with a majority gay city council. The upscale coffeehouse and restaurant, where an eclectic mix of patrons can often be seen crowded onto a palm-lined patio, was such a success that Stork opened a second location in Fort Lauderdale earlier this year. He often talks about being a small-business owner and how that qualifies him to help run the country. "The United States is currently spending more than our cash register is taking in to a half a trillion dollars," he says. "If it takes a small-business person to go [to Congress] and help shake some reality into them, then that's what I'll do."
Around the time he entered the restaurant business, Stork met Ansin, now 70, through some mutual friends. "We were both in relationships [at the time],"/rosin says. "We used to say we look good on paper together. We were both very much alike." So a year and a half ago they started dating, and now they share a home in Fort Lauderdale.
Some political pundits have suggested that the disparity in their ages could become a red herring in a tight race against Shaw, who might use it to distract voters from more serious issues.
"Jim has "always preferred older men," Ansin says. "Will it hurt the campaign? I don't know. I would hope that those sorts of issues are not going to be a part of the campaign." A serf-described political idealist, Ausin says he's glad to see someone like his partner run for Congress. "To ,say he's honest and dedicated is only scratching the surface," he says. "If he makes it, he's going to be a role model for a lot of young people."
Even though he's hesitant to discuss his sexual orientation out on the campaign trail, the significance of his potential victory is not lost on Stork. "A lot of people in file gay community see this as historical," he says. "There are [less than 300] openly gay elected officials in the country among over half a million. I think it's a good thing that qualified openly gay people ran. It allows a dialogue to take place." And if that dialogue happens to include gay rights, he says, it's not likely to become a political wedge. "I don't hear about the Federal Marriage Amendment," he says. "Most people I talk to are concerned about our troops in Iraq. They're asking if their jobs are going to be there tomorrow. They can't afford health insurance because it's $1,000 a month. I think it's a huge mistake for the Bush administration to think that this is the wedge issue that is somehow going to capture votes. That will clear itself out on Election Day."
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|Title Annotation:||Campaign 2004: the road to Congress|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Sep 14, 2004|
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