Missing were a couple dozen stalwarts of the city's gay political establishment, who were having a weenie roast at the Rockhill home of Representative Tim Van Zandt. Eight years ago -- when there was no gay political establishment -- they'd worked to get the openly gay Van Zandt elected to the Missouri House. A burly wonk who'd cut his teeth on Harriett Woods' 1982 Senate campaign, he endured four terms among yahoos who could have stepped out of the Capitol's famous Thomas Hart Benton frontier murals.
But term limits caught up with him this spring; at the same time, redistricting erased his seat, handing his Midtown constituents to Marsha Campbell. That's fine by Van Zandt. She is his best bud. They've voted nearly alike since Campbell earned her seat in 1996. Although gay issues rarely see any light in Jefferson City, Campbell, who is straight, has repeatedly tried to repeal Missouri's sodomy law that criminalizes adults for making love in their own bedrooms.
So the night of gay pride, Van Zandt was grilling hot dogs as a fund-raiser for his girlfriend.
Back at the festival, though, drag queens were plugging a newcomer. Terry Norman wants to inherit Van Zandt's legacy as the only gay man at the Statehouse (that we know of, anyway).
"It's important that there be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender representation at all levels of government," Norman says. "It's not enough to just have your friends. [We need to make sure] that our voice is there."
Norman says he laughed when friends approached him last fall about running for Van Zandt's soon-to-be-empty seat. At sixty, he'd never had political aspirations. He has an office on the Plaza, where he works as a counselor to "married gay men, lesbians with heterosexual spouses, their families and children." But he'd begun to re-evaluate his life two years ago when his boyfriend committed suicide "after a lifetime of depression." A former minister, Norman had also been inspired when he was among gay protesters arrested at the Methodists' national convention in 2000. "I was lying in my jail cell in Cleveland, just me and the cockroaches, and I don't ever remember a time when I felt more free," Norman says in a decent Martin Luther King Jr. imitation.
But after Van Zandt's seat no longer existed, Norman decided to run for the House anyway -- against Van Zandt's straight friend.
Van Zandt is incredulous. In 1994, his first, now-forgotten opponent tried to make Van Zandt's orientation the sole issue -- an ill-advised strategy, since Van Zandt was well-versed on many topics. "Within the gay community, Terry Norman is making us go backwards," he says. "I had hoped that we had progressed beyond just 'I need to be elected because Tim's gay and I'm gay.'"
So when the gay Four Freedoms Democratic Club met to make endorsements for the August 6 primary, its members had a tough choice. They had spent years backing Van Zandt and corralling a gay voting bloc to leverage friendships with straight politicians. After excruciating debate, they endorsed Campbell, based on the mature theory that, regardless of sexual orientation, loyalty to one's political friends encourages loyalty in return. They didn't want to lose credibility by looking like fickle queens.
But Norman's supporters decamped and immediately formed the KC Pride Democratic Club. They printed up their own endorsement fliers -- the names ripped off from the Four Freedoms slate, except that they changed Campbell to Norman.
Copping a rival group's endorsements to make yourself look legit is dirty politics. Making endorsements is a tedious process that involves tracking all the candidates, badgering them with questionnaires and sitting through long meetings with them. "I don't think the community at large has any idea of the amount of work that is involved," says the group's Tim Degnon.
Norman's handlers seem eager to seize pockets of gay gullibility. For instance, Flo, the city's most famous drag queen, who has raised tons of money for charities during beer busts at the Cabaret, says Norman's her man. In doing so, she unwittingly disses the people who helped put her on her throne.
"It's amazing that for the past two rounds of people being elected, [now-Mayor] Kay Barnes and [now-city-council members] Troy Nash and Bonnie Sue Cooper -- and all of them -- they come to the Cabaret now," she says. Why is the Cabaret such a critical campaign stop? "That has a lot to do with Four Freedoms," Flo says. "They get candidates here by saying, 'You know what? You need this huge population of people to vote.' That's why they come here and give their message."
Norman's message is a seductive one. His literature says he "has spent much of his adult life courageously advocating for social justice." Oddly, though, he hasn't used democracy's basic tool for doing that. Norman moved to Kansas City in 1990 after retiring from his ministry in Jeff City; records show that he didn't register to vote until 2000 and has bothered to make his voice heard in two elections. (Though he had registered by November 2000, he skipped the presidential contest.) Norman says that after 25 years of living in Jeff City, he had grown disgusted watching the legislature and chose not to vote for a decade. That explanation might fly with anti-politics types, but it doesn't exactly scream "courageous fighter for social justice."
Norman's blue fliers recap his education and his religious affiliations -- and his hetero-sounding divorce. ("Terry and his former wife have two adult sons, a daughter and an eighteen-month-old granddaughter.") Norman says it's common knowledge that he's gay, that he's been open about it in media interviews and when going door-to-door. But the decision not to mention it in campaign literature is a conscious one. And a disturbing one, considering that Norman is trying to win over the gay-pride crowd.
The unions, however, love him -- but that's because they hate Campbell. She secured labor's wrath by opposing collective bargaining for public employees; she says local governments, not the state, should make that call because it affects local budgets. And she and Van Zandt both freaked out the teachers' union in the winter of 2001, when they called for a state takeover of the Kansas City school district. (Hey, something had to be done.) Campbell can hardly be called an enemy of the common people, having fought, for example, to make sure no child-care money was cut during the last session's fierce budget debates. But on July 11, labor heavyweights gathered at the Beaumont Club to offer free food and booze to everyone who wrote Norman a check. And while the giddy members of the nascent KC Pride Democratic Club posed on the dance floor for group pictures and talked about endorsing not just gay candidates but gay-friendly straight candidates (Marsha Campbell, anyone?), they missed a perfect chance to reach out to the firefighters and builders who were drinking at the bar.
"[Norman is] a preacher, so you would assume he's a nice guy," said Sherwood Smith, president of the firefighters' political action committee. Informed that Norman hadn't been a preacher since 1990 and instead had a gay counseling practice, Smith said, "I didn't know that." But, he supposed, that wouldn't be much different from "if he were a counselor of criminals. Anyone who reaches out to help others would be good."
"We're interested in what Terry's thoughts on labor are," said Jackson County legislator and party host Bill Petrie. "The gay issue is a moot point." Petrie didn't seem inspired to use Norman's candidacy to build bridges between labor and gays. "Most of our members have friends and family, are open-minded and treat other people decently," he allowed, suggesting that some of his builders might know someone gay. (God forbid any of them might be gay.) But, he said, "the construction crowd's traditionally a man's world."
Terry Norman comes from a man's world, too, just not the one Petrie's familiar with. No matter. Norman is mastering the lowest common denominator in politics: appearing to be all things to all people.