State Legislature has largest gay caucus in U.S.

State Legislature has largest gay caucus in U.S.
Five of the six gay legislatures, from left, Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, Rep Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, Rep. Joe McDermott, D-Seattle, and Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver pose outside the Capitol in Olympia.
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - The Washington state Legislature has the second-largest gay caucus in the country after a new representative was appointed to the House this year.

Marko Liias, a 26-year-old Democrat from Mukilteo, started the legislative session earlier this month, replacing former Rep. Brian Sullivan, who left the Legislature for the Snohomish County Council. Liias' arrival gives Washington six openly gay lawmakers, ahead of California, Connecticut, and Vermont, which each have five, but still one shy of the seven gay lawmakers in New Hampshire.

That gives Washington state the second largest Capitol gay caucus, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee.

California and Washington state are tied for the biggest percentage, at about 4.1 percent. New Hampshire has a much larger Legislature, with 424 members, making their gay caucus just 1.7 percent of lawmakers.

"Anything that we can do, me as an individual, or us as a state, to be leaders on this issue and be role models is excellent," Liias told The Associated Press Wednesday. "The message really is, everyone deserves a stake in Washington, and everyone has a stake in Washington's future."

Liias joins Reps. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver and Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, and Sens. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Joe McDermott, D-Seattle.

Of the approximately 500,000 elected officials in America, about 400 of them are openly gay or lesbian, said Denis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesman.

Nineteen states don't have any openly gay lawmakers in theirs legislatures. Of those, six don't have any openly gay officials at any level: Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, South Carolina and West Virginia.

With 116, California leads the nation as the state with the most elected and appointed officials who are openly gay, according to the Victory Fund. Pennsylvania is second with 37 officials, though none are state legislators. Washington is third with 35, and New York is fourth with 30.

More gay and lesbian candidates are running for office and getting elected because they are becoming more politically sophisticated, better funded and better organized, Dison said.

"Barriers have been broken," he said. "I think we are in the adolescence of gay and lesbian people stepping up and running for office."

The group has endorsed 39 candidates in various political campaigns this year, including the re-election of U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, but hopes to support more than 100. It supports two candidates in Oregon, Sen. Kate Brown, who is running for secretary of state, and Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, who is running for mayor.

Dison cited Cal Anderson, Washington state's first openly gay lawmaker who, died of AIDS in 1995, as a trailblazer for gay politicians in the state.

"He was a towering figure in the gay community," Dison said. He added that Murray took over much of Anderson's leadership, including the drive for a gay rights bill that passed in 2006.

"You see someone as a leader who has made change and you realize you can do the same thing," Dison said.

For Murray, who for many years was the lone openly gay lawmaker in Washington state, the state's new status is welcome.

"What I think it signifies for the state is that this is a fairly tolerant state and that voters are making decisions on people's character, and not their sexual orientation," he said.

Liias said that while he will have a voice on issues important to the gay community, like a domestic partnership bill he is co-sponsoring, his main goal in the Legislature is to work on issues important to his district, like transportation.

"The real testament is going to be what we get done," he said. "In the end, that's what's most important, not that we tipped the scales, but that we had six members of the Legislature who worked to get some good things done for their district."