Earlier this year, the Idaho House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Many of the representatives who supported the bill spoke of upholding Christian moral values and protecting children. Those who argued against it said that it would write hate into the Idaho Constitution.
It is in this climate that Nicole LeFavour stands to be the first openly gay representative--politician, even--in Idaho history. Her sexual orientation has about as much to do with her abilities as a legislator as, say, Gov. Kempthorne's heterosexuality affects his job. Unlike Kempthorne, though, LeFavour has to prove it.
This is one of only several battles LeFavour likely faces during the next year. Yet she has already won what was perhaps her biggest battle. Last week's democratic primary in Boise's District 19 featured a tough three-way race to fill retiring Rep. Ken Robison's seat. LeFavour received 55 percent of the vote over the well-liked Brian Cronin and former legislator Steve Scanlin. Although she still has the general election this November, she is likely to win in this democratic stronghold.
I recently spoke with LeFavour about her victory in the primary, the issues she's passionate about, and her thoughts on being a gay politician in Idaho.
JH: Congratulations on your win in the primary. Why do you think you won?
NL: We worked really hard and had an incredible team. By election day we felt that no matter what happens, we really did everything we could and did it well. [Particularly critical was] the incredible team doing get-out-the-vote efforts. The election's low turn-out meant that we had to get people to the polls. We had identified enough voters in advance to win, and just had to get them out to vote.
Do you think that your being lesbian had anything to do with your victory?
A lot of people are inspired by the fact that I'm gay but I don't think that people would have voted for me only because of that. I ran because I have strong skills regardless of the fact that I'm a lesbian. I've lived in District 19 for 14 years and people know that I work hard.
Why did you decide to run?
Working for ICAN [Idaho Community Action Network] convinced me to run. I built relationships with republicans in the Senate [through lobbying for ICAN]. The [Idaho] Statesman said ICAN failed [last session]. ICAN was working on tough legislation, the kind it takes years to pass. Like with Farmworker Minimum Wage, you have to start somewhere. On the Qwest bill, I was the only lobbyist working against it. I ran [for the legislature] because of the moments when I could convince someone to change their vote or when [a legislator] explained why they couldn't vote a certain way and I had to respect that. I got to see the pressures legislators face and yet found it hopeful. Stopping cuts to CHIP [the Children's Health Insurance Program] was also really exciting.
If elected in November, what are your plans for the coming legislative session?
I previously had no interest in utility rules, but when you can see the human impact, then you know it's important and exciting [to be working on]. I want to be a voice that isn't represented--for ordinary working people. I will work with labor, but it's important to have multiple voices working together. I will also be a strong voice on conservation issues. And as an educator, I'll be using my experience in the classroom (she currently teaches creative writing at Ft. Boise Mid-High) and on tax issues. Tax policy is some of the most exciting work I've done.
Since this interview is for the Pride issue, I'd like to know how your sexual orientation might influence your role as a legislator.
I'm going in there to be a strong legislator. When issues come up relevant to being gay, I'll be a voice who's been there--I face bigotry everyday. I think the legislature at its best should reflect the state, with more women, more people of color, people of diverse economic backgrounds.
Do you think that your sexual orientation would affect your ability to be an effective legislator?
If I didn't have existing relationships [with legislators] it would be 10 times harder. [Legislators] are going to need to see me as a person first. One of my biggest challenges is that some people worry that other people won't be comfortable working with a gay person. I haven't worked with the House as much as with the Senate, so they don't know me as well there ... No matter who you work with, it's so important that people are comfortable with you. I have to show all parts [of myself] so that people can relate to me beyond the label [of being gay]. I will have more of that to do. I have to go slowly and take time. It's so important to talk one-on-one with people. [Last session,] my knowledge of the issues was really good for relationship building [with legislators]. People respect you if you know the facts.
What advice would you give to other gays and lesbians interested in entering politics?
If a person were to want to run [for office] because their only concern is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender issues, they would need to be broader than that. [In order to be a good legislator], you absolutely have to build an incredible store of knowledge. But [as a gay or lesbian running for office] you're going to have to have twice as much as anybody else. If you are openly gay or lesbian, you have to raise twice as much money, work twice as hard, and be twice as disciplined in your message to the media. ... It's like that with sexism. Because when people think of a "legislator," in their mind they see a white, heterosexual man, and if you don't meet that image, you have something to overcome. It's important to break down stereotypes. I'll try to do that by being strong and by being a good legislator.