Last week I had a delightful conversation with Jacob Meister, the openly gay Chicago lawyer who has high hopes for winning the Democratic primary and seeking the seat previously held by President Barack Obama and Carol Moseley Braun before him. We opened by talking about Meister's long history working with small businesses, and his experiences on Capitol Hill as an intern in the 1980s.
We continued to talk about his plan for education, his telecommuting tax credit plan and his 2020 Vision for America which includes building a strong stable of green jobs in manufacturing to move the United States to the forefront of the global green economy, and get all Americans back to gainful employment.
Next we moved on to the very reason why I sought an interview with the candidate: why does Jacob Meister believe that he is going to be the first openly gay man elected to the United States Senate?
"Illinois is a very progressive state," Meister tells me as we continue our interview. "This is a historic seat of firsts. This was Carol Moseley Braun's seat, and President Barack Obama's seat," Jacob says with pride. Meister is obviously quite proud to have a shot at representing the people of Illinois in the Senate. He's also quite proud to have a shot at representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans in the Senate.
"I'm part of a lot of different communities. Who I am will affect which issues I support. It is no different than if an Asian member of the House were representing Asian interests nation-wide. When there are only a handful of candidates from these minority communities, they get a 'national constituency," according to Meister.
He sees no tension between representing the interests of agriculturally-heavy Illinois and gays and lesbians all over the nation. He's also ready to go up to bat for our LGBT bills right away.
"In Senate there is no-one willing to burn political capital for issues important to us. We are having enough difficulty finding someone to introduce the repeal of DOMA. We finally talked Senator Feingold into it, but it takes a lot of push for someone who is not from the LGBT community." Meister asks "who else will do it?"
He promises instead of continuing to twist arms every Congress, he will make it a priority to bring these issues to the Senate floor immediately, and will go to task for our community.
When I asked him about which LGBT bills he will take up first in the Senate, he was quick with an answer. "'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal and passing [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act]," he replied confidently.
Meister is looking to create a strong LGBT volunteer army to help with outreach, voter registration and 'get out the vote' efforts. With thirteen LGBT candidates running in Cook County alone, as a group we must get out and get others to support our causes. "We need to assert ourselves as a voting group." he says.
"[LGBT people] get taken advantage of by politicians," he says. "Lawmakers make promises to us and don't follow through." Meister wants to see the LGBT community empower itself in the voting booths across this nation by 'rewarding' our friends and 'punishing' our enemies--with our voting power.
Meister sees turning out the LGBT vote as crucial for his election and the election of any true LGBT ally in our movement. "We will be a potent voting block this primary if we can turn out just 30% of the LGBT vote." Its not enough to just register as voters, we need to turn out and turn our supporters out as well to vote for change that includes our rights too this time.
The guy who gets it
God love openly gay Representative Barney Frank, he certainly sometimes risks a revocation of his queer card when he insists that--though we've played the game and waited patiently for decades--if we keep playing the game and leave it up to him and his allies in the House, all will be well. Barney Frank understands the system, how it works, and how to play it well; but in a way, Representative Frank is a product of that system and may defend it a little too vigorously.
The political process is infuriatingly tedious, but certainly this is a problem across the board, for any agent of change that wants to see their issues progress, not just lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender folk.
However, when Representative Frank spends time discouraging our community from putting energy into visible action and attempting to put positive political pressure on our lawmakers--hopefully reminding them of their promises to us and that we are watching--he shows that for all of his years of experience, there are things that are clearly lost on him.
Our real point of frustration in the future is going to be the Senate. Our President has pledged to sign the LGBT rights legislation that hits his desk; and until he vetoes a bill, I'm going to take him at his word (as naive as that may seem to some). Meister makes a very valid point on the matter of the process to get to his desk, however.
As much as Representative Frank sometimes seems to be too careful, he's introduced to the House LGBT (sometimes sans-T, but he seems to have dropped that habit) bills in every Congress for a big chunk of my living memory. I believe that he will continue to do so. However, Meister is right that we can pass all the bills we want in the House, if there is no one in the Senate who is going to make the commotion and push hard on these bills - no one willing to burn that "Political Capitol"--we're just treading water.
Meister's election is a long-shot. Sure, this is a traditionally progressive state; but statewide elections are tough here, as downstate is not nearly progressive as Chicago, where the biggest chunk of our voters come from. We may lean 'blue' because of that big, liberal citadel, but the rest of the state is 'purple-pink' at its best. If he does secure the primary vote, he'll face stiff competition state-wide, and endanger losing this seat to a Republican again--most likely IL-10th District US Congressman Mark Kirk.
As Meister himself brings up in Part I of this piece, he's running against clear front-runner state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in the Democratic primaries, who Jacob himself says has star power, and a lot of experience campaigning. He'll also be competing with veteran politicos David Hoffman and Cheryle Jackson in a crowded field. If he is to compete with Giannoulias, he's going to have to pull ahead of the rest of this competitive pack.
This will all be a steep, uphill climb for the commercial litigator from Chicago, but if he's able to surmount these difficult obstacles, he would be poised to make history as the first openly-gay candidate to win a US Senate seat.
This would be an unprecedented victory for our community and a new step in our efforts to win hearts and minds over. Should the national LGBT community rally behind Jacob Meister throughout each of the tough steps in this process, we could be seeing history made here.
One thing is very much for sure, during my conversation with Jacob Meister, I frequently forgot I was talking to a political candidate. His ideas and plans, as well as his deep grasp of the situations being faced by LGBT Americans, small business owners and teachers show me he's a thoughtful and empathetic citizen--one of the rare breed that actually wants to go to Washington to do some good, rather than just build up his own name.
I strongly encourage you to take the opportunity to meet Jacob Meister if you can--especially if you're an Illinois resident. Sit down and talk to him about your story and what you want to see Congress do to help Americans. He could potentially someday be our voice in the Senate.