Cory Booker, sexuality, and the GOP's regressive politics

Republican Steve Lonegan truly steps in it by trying to take advantage of questions around his heavily favored Democratic opponent's sexuality

Cory Booker
(Image credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A new issue has been raised about Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the emerging Democratic Party star running to be senator of New Jersey: his sexuality. And who will benefit from the resulting reaction? Booker.

The catalyst was a profile in The Washington Post, in which it was noted how he keeps his life private. Booker made this statement:

"Because how unfair is it to a young lady to put them in the spotlight if they haven't signed up for that yet?” he says. "And people who think I'm gay, some part of me thinks it's wonderful. Because I want to challenge people on their homophobia. I love seeing on Twitter when someone says I'm gay, and I say, 'So what does it matter if I am? So be it. I hope you are not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I'm straight." [The Washington Post]

Could it have been a clever trick to flesh out his opponent? Most likely not. But controversial businessman and former Bogata, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan's made himself the story when he appeared to declare that he, Lonegan, was the sole alpha male in the race. From an interview with Newsmax:

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"It's kind of weird. As a guy, I personally like being a guy. I don't know if you saw the stories last year. They've been out for quite a bit about how he [Booker] likes to go out at three o'clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure," Lonegan said. "...I don't like going out in the middle of the night, or any time of the day, for a manicure and pedicure. It was described as his peculiar fetish... I have a more peculiar fetish. I like a good Scotch and a cigar. That's my fetish but we'll just compare the two." [Newsmax]

Lonegan's comments immediately became national news, with TIME saying Lonegan had embraced "juvenile frat boy hazing."

The main result, however, was to give Booker a chance to characterize Lonegan's comments as showing "callous, bigoted disrespect to gays and lesbians" in an interview with HuffPost Live:

"It's just disheartening to hear somebody, in this day and age, in the United States of America, say basically... that gay men are not men... It's shocking to one's conscience in this country, where we believe that the content of one's character, the courage in one's heart, the strength of one's sense of purpose, the love that one has for others and their service, is what defines them. And instead he's challenging the masculinity of millions of Americans..." [Huffington Post]

And on Thursday night, Booker helped keep the story alive by repeatedly deflecting questions on his sexuality from Chris Hayes, saying:

"The question really should not be whether I'm gay or straight. The question should be why the heck are you asking the question in the first place?" [MSNBC]

The whole back and forth provides a helpful lesson in 21st century politics.

Lonegan unwittingly defined himself as a stereotypical Tea Partier who stereotypes others. That sparked headlines, got attention from cable and radio talkers, allowed Booker to go on the offensive, and totally drowned out whatever message Lonegan would have wanted to propagate. Lonegan tried to change the subject with reporters in Paramus on Thursday: "I'm concerned about a potential war in Syria, not validating Cory Booker's lifestyle," he told them. "This election is not about whether or not Cory Booker is gay or straight."

Too late. Lonegan is the one who made Booker's lifestyle an issue. And by essentially telling reporters they shouldn't be asking the question, Lonegan all but ensured that he'll be asked it repeatedly.

Public attitudes toward gays have shifted profoundly in recent years. An ABC/Washington Post poll in March found that 58 percent of Americans believe gay marriage should be legal, while 36 percent oppose its legality. But more striking is the generational shift: Support for gay marriage among young adults 18 to 29 years old hit an all time high of 81 percent. Why would Lonegan make Booker's lifestyle an issue when it's an issue the Republican is on the wrong side of?

The Republican Party claims it knows that it needs to show a kinder face to win back young and minority voters. But a makeover just isn't possible when conservatives like Lonegan continue to betray the truth of their regressive attitudes.

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