Ken Calvert has held his seat in Congress for 30 years, partly by opposing gay rights. Now that he is running for re-election against gay rivals in a district that includes one of America’s largest concentrations of LGBTQ voters, Calvert says his views have changed.
Despite his earlier opposition, Republicans say, he believes the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the country should not be overturned.
“That’s not always been my position,” Calvert said. “It’s a different country than it was 30 years ago.”
Be it principle or opportunism, Calvert’s change of heart seems a necessary change in a race that has grown far more competitive as a result of redrawing California’s congressional boundaries.
Party registration in the new Riverside County district, which includes Palm Springs and the surrounding community, is pretty much the same; The district that Calvert currently represents is a solid Republic. And his opponent for re-election? Democrat Will Rollins, the former federal prosecutor who worked on the January 6 uprising and who campaigned with his partner, Paolo Benvenuto.
There is little schadenfreude among Calvert’s critics.
“This is poetic justice,” said Sam Garrett-Pate, a spokesman for Los Angeles-based Equality California, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ rights and has supported Rollins. “I don’t think there’s any other way to put it other than what happened.”
However, Calvert has a clear advantage: the benefits of office and the support of former President Trump. Congressmen raised nearly $1.9 million to Rollins’ $1 million on May 18, according to the Federal Election Commission. And the new district retains 7 out of 10 voters from its current district and its largest city is Calvert’s hometown of Corona.
GOP redistricting expert Matt Rexroad argues that the economic headwinds for Democrats – inflation, sky-high gas prices – are a boon to Calvert, but that future elections are in doubt.
“Where will this seat be in 2028 or 2024, I’m not sure. I thought it might be a good seat this time around, but the trend is wrong with regards to turnout in Coachella Valley,” said Rexroad.
In 2021’s redistricting—a redrawing of congressional districts that occurs every 10 years after the US census—the Calvert district lost solid GOP territories like Temecula and Murrieta while gaining swaths of liberals, most notably Palm Springs, the first city in the nation to elect an all-LGBTQ City Council. . Riverside County has become less red, in part because of an influx of Los Angeles residents seeking more affordable housing.
The new 41st Congressional District stretches from the riding community of Norco and the sprawling suburbs of Corona in the west to the golf courses and resorts of Indian Wells, Palm Springs, and Rancho Mirage on its eastern edge.
The partisan shift is making the district more competitive, as has the increase in LGBTQ voters at a time when liberals believe gay rights are under unprecedented threat in recent years. These fears were magnified by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s opinion last month in overturning Roe vs. Wade when he questioned extended protections to contraceptive rights and same-sex relationships.
Calvert, 69, a small business owner, is the longest-serving GOP member of the California congressional delegation. He was first elected to represent the Outback Empire in Congress in 1992.
Two years later, one of his allies outperformed his rival, Mark Takano, as gay. Calvert’s campaign responded by sending voters pink and lavender letters claiming the Democrats had a “secret agenda” and asking whether Takano, who has not publicly disclosed he is gay, would become “a congressman for Riverside … or San Francisco? ”
(Takano was elected to Congress in 2012 and has since represented western Riverside County.)
Calvert dismissed suggestions that his race was against Takano and his record on LGBTQ rights — voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriage, and against repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’ Policy.” t Tell” about gay members — to his detriment as he seeks a 16th term, noting that top Democrats allied with him on the policy at one time.
He cited his work securing money for district priorities including transport projects, upgrading infrastructure and military bases in the region, as well as his growing views on same-sex relationships as reasons that new voters in the district would support him.
“I’ve never had any animosity towards the gay community,” Calvert said. “I’m out of the restaurant business, for God’s sake. A lot of the people I work with are gay.”
John Falcone, treasurer of Log Cabin Republicans of Coachella Valley — the local branch of the LGBTQ Republican organization — said he was skeptical when Calvert contacted the group this year. But after meeting with Calvert for more than an hour, the 59-year-old bank analyst said his concerns had been assuaged.
“We talked about gay issues and his past record, and he was very, very open and very receptive,” said Falcone, sitting in the clubhouse at his Rancho Mirage country club, an oasis of chill on a sweltering desert day. “I give him credit for reaching out and I find him authentic. In, I was skeptical, but out, I thought, okay, he’ll be fine. ”
John Falcone, treasurer of the Coachella Valley branch of an LGBTQ Republican organization, plans to elect Rep. Ken Calvert in November.
(Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)
He added that he was unfamiliar with Rollins, who moved to Palm Springs this year from Canyon Lake, which is also in the district.
Rollins, sipping iced coffee on the terrace of a Palm Springs cafe, said he became interested in public service after seeing the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001, when he was in junior high school.
“Seeing Americans covered in ashes on the street made me feel – as it has for many of us – like I wanted to serve and help protect my country from those who attacked us,” Rollins said. “But in 2001, it was still against the law [for gay Americans] to serve openly in the military. I was an introverted gay kid, and I was worried about being ostracized under the policy, worried about being humiliated, about embarrassing my family.”
So he became a lawyer and worked for the national security division at the Department of Justice, focusing on domestic terrorism cases in Southern California.
“The threats facing the country have changed, and some of those threats are now coming from within,” said Rollins, against the backdrop of the rugged peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains. The 37-year-old decided last year to leave his job to run for office. “I don’t want to look back on my life and regret not stepping up when one of these Republicans was right in my backyard and voted to undermine our democracy after January 6th.”
After last year’s uprising, Calvert voted against certifying the ballots of Arizona and Pennsylvania electoral colleges. He said he believed there were voting irregularities in the state, but acknowledged that Joe Biden was president.
“I believe Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. Unfortunately, violence happened that day that shouldn’t have happened,” Calvert said. “It was certainly a dark day in the history of our country.”
Some voters said this answer was dishonest because Calvert sought Trump’s support after the uprising.
Elle Kurpiewski, a volunteer with the Desert Democratic Headquarters group in Cathedral City, supported Democrat Will Rollins in his bid to overthrow Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona).
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
“He wants the support of the people who are trying to overthrow the United States government. What happened to your vows, Ken Calvert?” asked retired flight attendant Elle Kurpiewski, 75, who volunteers with a group called Desert Democratic Headquarters in Cathedral City. “I feel strongly that we have a very good candidate in Will Rollins who understands as a former federal prosecutor what an oath means to your state.”
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Rollins’ story of 9/11 and the limited options due to his sexuality resonated with voters like Democrat John Lacombe.
The retired aerospace worker recalls his father telling him he could do whatever he wanted, including being president. But after Lacombe realized he was gay, he decided running was impossible.
Once the 66-year-old man and some neighbors learned that their Rancho Mirage home was part of the new 41st District, they invited Rollins to speak to their Good Trouble Club, which was formed in honor of the late civil rights icon and Rep. Democrat John R. Lewis of Georgia.
“Will speaks very eloquently, very passionately, very intelligently,” Lacombe said in an interview at his gated retirement community center. “For me, it was the moment that crystallized all of this…. That’s when I returned to the conversation with my father. And I looked at [Rollins] and said, ‘That could be me if it happened 40 years ago.’ So, I will support this person 100%.”
John Lacombe of Rancho Mirage plans to elect Democrat Will Rollins, a former gay federal prosecutor, in November.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Former US Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who has lived at the Rancho Mirage since 2005 and hosted a fundraiser for Rollins in May that raised $200,000, said she expects the race to attract national attention.
“We have one of the clearest choices in this country about what the future holds for America,” Boxer said, pointing to Calvert’s voice against issues like abortion rights and the Violence Against Women Act.
Riverside County Superintendent Karen Spiegel has known Calvert since he moved to Corona in 1985 and said several people made the wrong assumptions about him. The bigger point is all the good he has done for the district, including halting the closure of two military bases, said Spiegel, a Republican.
“He has been involved in the community for a long time, not just because he lives here. He’s entangled, he’s involved, he still goes to Rotary and Chamber of Commerce meetings when he’s at home,” Spiegel said, adding that Calvert has strong seniority on the House Allocation Committee.
Takano, who regularly collaborates with Calvert on legislation that benefits the region, has backed Rollins.
“I don’t bear a burning grudge about what happened in 1994, but what I think would be ironic, real change, was if a former LGBT prosecutor defeated congressman Calvert this November,” Takano said.