Lesbian Challenges Matheson for Congressional Seat

Claudia Wright became a serious contender for Utah Congressman Jim Matheson’s job by answering an ad on Craigslist.

The ad was one of many — some satirical, others serious — that appeared on the classified ads Web site last November when Matheson earned the ire of Utah liberals by voting against a proposed national health care reform bill.

“I was working in a group of progressive Democrats on health care [reform] at the time” that included Democrats from environmental, peace, gay rights and immigrants’ rights groups, said Wright. “The common denominator was the inaccessibility of our congressman. So one of our members put the ad on Craigslist out of frustration and wanted a courageous Congressperson who wouldn’t sell out to corporate interests.”

The ad in question read: “Wanted: Progressive Congressional Representative to represent the people of Utah’s 2nd district. Must have solid moral values and a resistance to selling out to corporate interests. Eligible candidate should have a strong commitment to defending fundamental human rights over corporate profits.”

Wright was one of several candidates who submitted a resume. As a retired high school teacher who had taught advanced placement classes in American history, European history, humanities and women’s studies, she said she had the time, knowledge and dedication for the job.

“I really wanted to follow through on the process,” she said. “It was like being able to put together the information about how the system works.”

Wright was one of five candidates to move on to a second interview. Here, a committee of community leaders in areas such as health care reform, environmental protection, immigrants’ rights and gay and transgender rights interviewed the candidates before an audience of Congressional District 2’s residents. This panel included chairman of the Utah Coalition of La Raza Archie Archuleta and Equality Utah Director Brandie Balken. The audience then narrowly picked University of Utah molecular biologist John Weis over her. However, Weis withdrew after learning that he would lose his research lab if he undertook the job, leaving Wright as the challenger.

Since then, Wright and a stable of dedicated volunteers (including campaign manager Michael Picardi, former head of the gay-friendly Utah Stonewall Democrats) have been working scores of unpaid hours to make her campaign a success.

“Everyone is a volunteer,” said Wright. “We’re doing this with a lot less money and a lot more people. That’s been the miracle of this campaign — the number of people who have come out to support me.”

Wright is campaigning on a progressive platform that supports such things as expanding the Medicare system to cover all Americans, pursuing alternate forms of energy, strengthening the country’s labor movement, and using public money to fund elections — thus, in her view, keeping corporate interests out of the process.

She is also an out lesbian who supports repealing the military’s ban on openly gay and transgender servicemembers and the Defense of Marriage Act, which federally defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman, and allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. She also supports the federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would make it illegal to discriminate against employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in all 50 states.

“In addition to these acts, I believe that we must look carefully at what constitutes a family,” Wright wrote on her campaign Web site. “The current definition of “Mom, Dad, and the kids” applies to less than 50% of American families. Grandparents rearing their grandchildren have a right to be called families. Brothers and sisters helping to care for an elderly parent have a right to be called families. Two women or two men with children have a right to be called families. Our definition of the highly charged word “family” needs to keep up with the multiple relationships in which Americans now live, and our legal systems need to keep up with the civil rights of all these citizens.”
Wright has been open about being lesbian from the moment she interviewed for the job of running against Matheson. So far, she said that people have responded positively or neutrally to her sexuality.

“I’ve said that [I’m lesbian] in a number of places and venues. I want them to know that,” she said. “I want them to know exactly who they’re voting for because if it’s an issue, it’s an issue. I think the Democrats are OK with it, but I don’t how it’ll play with the Republicans. … To Matheson’s credit he hasn’t said anything about it, but you’ve got to remember that the Stonewall Caucus is either the largest or second largest in the state, so that really wouldn’t be to his benefit.”

Even though her campaign doesn’t have a lot of money, Wright has full confidence in her volunteers and in her chances at the state convention on May 8 where Utah’s delegates will pick her or Matheson as their candidate in November. Moreover, she said that frustration with Matheson, whom many Utah Democrats view as inaccessible and too conservative, may also help her.

“I think what has happened to him is the gerrymandering [of his district] has affected him profoundly,” she said. “When he started his career he started out as mod Democrat, and now he’s move so far to the right that he’s more conserve than [Sen. Bob] Bennett. That’s what floored me, when Bennett was showing more compassion for healthcare, I wondered what on earth is going on.”

Wright is also encouraged by an influx of new Democratic delegates, as well as by Republicans who are joining the party “because of the extreme nature of what’s going on with the militias and the Tea Parties.” Further, she noted that many of her younger volunteers have said that their campaign reminds them of working on President Barack Obama’s, which also began as a small, grassroots effort.

“Every time we start something new we’re told we can’t do that, it’s impossible, and I think what we’re proving is that it can work,” said Wright. “If people become involved it can work.”

Claudia Wright’s Web site is located at claudiawrightforutah.com.

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