As the vote count continues to determine whether he’ll be a candidate in November, Pennsylvania’s first openly gay lawmaker is taking stock of past decisions and future ambitions.
State Rep. Mike Fleck, a four-term legislator, has been re-elected easily in the past. But his bid for a fifth term was unlike any previous campaign. This time, voters in the rural Pennsylvania district knew their representative is gay.
At last count, Fleck trailed a write-in candidate by 300 votes in his district, which includes Centre, Mifflin and Huntingdon counties in the central part of the state.
The incumbent Republican, who came out after his last election, knew that winning what he calls “very much a Republican district” would be tough.
“It became a subtle campaign of, ‘He’s not one of us,'” Fleck said, characterizing the 3,700 write-in votes against him as “a vocal minority.”
“But, unfortunately, that’s who came out to vote. Anyone who did not like the gay Mike Fleck was not waiting until November to vote against me — they came out Tuesday,” he said. “I knew all along that I would have to get through the primary and, if I got through the primary, I’d be fine in November.”
His constituents were cordial at the polls, Fleck said, but he knew some then went into the voting booth and wrote in the name of his opponent, Rich Irvin.
Irvin said his decision to run was not based on Fleck’s coming out but follows a long time of considering a campaign to represent the 81st District.
“And I’m looking to bring good jobs and have a place for my kids to work and play,” said Irvin, who has served as Huntingdon County treasurer for 17 years and on the county’s pension, prison and salary boards.
Supporting “less government dependence and more personal responsibility,” Irvin said he’s “looking out for the best of the community and what the district’s beliefs and needs are.”
Deep roots in the district
This rural swath of Pennsylvania he represents has always been home to Fleck. He grew up on Fleck Road, about a mile from the farm where he lives now.
As a Shippensburg graduate student, he bought the farm where his father grew up, a property purchased by his great-great grandparents before the Civil War. Along with the family history, Fleck said, the place has other appeal.
“It literally is in the middle of nowhere. My closest neighbors — you can’t see them — and I like it that way with the chaos that I get myself into in Harrisburg,” he said. “It’s great to get here and sit on the front porch and relax.”
When asked about his discussion to come out after he won re-election in 2012, Fleck didn’t point to a desire for self-preservation. Instead, he turned outward and said he was trying to protect his colleagues from media attention.
“You know, put them in the [position of] ‘deer in the headlights,’ kind of like, ‘Oh, your colleague just came out. Where are you on this?’
“And so I did come out right after the election and the response has been overall positive in the State House as well as here,” he said. “Of course the election may prove otherwise.”
This primary, Fleck had no choice run but to as a Republican lawmaker … who also happened to be the state’s first openly gay lawmaker.
A Republican challenged from the right
Fleck said he knew he would face opposition this go around. That included a rally by the Pennsylvania Family Institute in his district a week before the election, with a focus on morality, Obamacare and Fleck’s support of LGBT nondiscrimination legislation.
“They were really vile in their descriptions and it resonated. It certainly did. The churches got on their prayer chains,” he said. “They came out in droves.”
That his challenging re-election bid comes just as same-sex marriage has been legalized in Pennsylvania has left Fleck astonished … “I am dumbfounded actually.”
Had a sex-marriage measure come to the floor of the Legislature, Fleck said he believes it would have passed in a close vote. But he said he doubted it would happen anytime soon given the Republican majority’s control over what bills exit committee.
“I thought, ‘It’s still going to be a few years before we get there.’ So when this took place the other day and now with the governor saying he’s not going to fight it, it’s ‘wow.’ I’m still trying to take that all in.”
Politics hasn’t always been so focused on such issues. Fleck pointed out that past Republican lawmakers, including his grandfather who was a Republican committeeman in Huntingdon County, weren’t so caught up in battling over social issues.
‘They’ll catch up’
Now in rural Pennsylvania, in a race that’s too close to call, Fleck pointed out that not just Republicans, but Democrats, chose his to write in the name of his very conservative opponent.
“You have a lot of rural Democrats that are not there on equality,” he said. “It’s not a one-party issue in rural American, certainly.”
Fleck pointed out that his district is “incredibly diverse,” a combination of liberal areas near Juniata College and Penn State University as well as some very conservative pockets. While he knows many in the state’s rural areas are not excited for marriage equality, he believes that, “like most other civil rights, they’ll catch up.”
Legalization of gay marriage is vital to the future of the Republican Party because it’s past time to move on from debating equality issues. he said.
“It will make our party stronger because, right now, it’s just not attractive to the younger generation who just thinks it’s wrong to discriminate and not have equality.
“I think you have a lot of young gay conservatives who are fiscally conservative, but liberal on social issues who would probably more associate themselves with the Republican Party if it wasn’t for equality issues,” he said. “Now you take this out of the mix, and I think you know it does change the dynamic.”
Fleck calls himself a moderate Republican and points out that he’s been noticed by Governing Magazine for his ability to compromise and work across the aisle. He knew he wanted to run again — even though he anticipated a challenge — because he wanted the voters to decide.
Staying true to himself
With no plans to become a career politician, Fleck said he doesn’t see this election as a referendum on his performance. Even if he loses his seat, he said, he has accepted himself and ran as who he really is.
“I’ve never been happier in my life.”
Asked if he would use the state’s new law to marry his partner, Fleck was noncommittal and said he takes one day at a time. He recounted a painful rejoinder who would deploy when people ask him about it, answering “‘Oh you know, I was married — been there, done that.'”
Even if the people decide against sending him back to Harrisburg, Fleck said the 81st District will always be home.
“When you have a gay Republican who graduated from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and worked for the Boy Scouts as a district executive and gets elected in a conservative district, I think it makes for an interesting story, a compelling story,” he said. “I’ve certainly heard from so many other people in my situation — who were from a rural area, people who were married and came out in their 30s as I did. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
In some ways, the swift legalization of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania feels like “the cart before the horse,” Fleck said. “And, in some ways, I’m scared for the couples in rural America and rural Pennsylvania. It’s like you know you put your wedding announcement in the paper. Maybe your boss didn’t know you were gay. He can simply fire you for being gay.”
Fleck said there is still work to be done. At the top of his list is passing non-discrimination legislation to protect lesbian, gay and transgender Pennsylvanians.