The Candidate: Has Rep. Mike Fleck’s sexual orientation or his politics threatened his career?
Rep. Mike Fleck moves fluidly along the cobblestone corridors of the Capitol in Harrisburg, rattling off facts about the ornate structure, the materials used in its construction, the politicians whom the offices are named for, the dates when renovations occurred.
“I love the history of it,” Fleck said.
In November, the four-term lawmaker just might become history himself.
Despite winning a state House of Representatives seat easily in 2006 and then running unopposed in 2008, 2010 and 2012, Fleck lost in the Republican primary in May to a challenger who ran a write-in campaign.
But in an odd twist of good fortune, Fleck got 17 more write-in votes than the same Republican challenger on the Democratic side of the primary ballot. As a result, he appears on the Nov. 4 ballot as a Republican incumbent on the Democratic ticket.
How he found himself in this curious situation depends on whom you ask.
Fleck’s critics among his fellow Republicans contend that he has grown too liberal for the largely rural 81st District made up of Huntingdon County and portions of Centre and Mifflin counties.
But Fleck’s supporters say the primary loss is all about Fleck’s personal life. In December 2012, a month after winning his fourth term, Fleck announced that he is gay. He became Pennsylvania’s first Republican openly gay legislator.
This year, political experts in Pennsylvania and around the country have been watching his race.
“We’re swimming in the dark here and we’re swimming in the dark because of the nature of the election,” said G. Terry Madonna, a nationally known elections expert and professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster. “It’s not something we see every day: an openly gay Republican incumbent running as a Democrat in a rural, Republican district.”
Fleck’s political heritage
The 81st District is colored red: In Huntingdon County, 57 percent of the electorate are registered as Republicans as compared to 33 percent registered as Democrats. No Democrat has ever been legislator of the 81st.
Fleck, 41, is a Huntingdon County boy, and his family members are Huntingdon County people. His family can trace roots in southern Huntingdon County back to the late 1700s. Fleck currently resides in a farmhouse that has been in his family for generations. It is on Fleck Road.
He has lived in the county except for the years he attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, a conservative Christian school founded by the evangelist Jerry Falwell. Fleck graduated in 1995 with a degree in history and a minor in youth ministry. Later, he did postgraduate study in history at Shippensburg University.
An Eagle Scout, Fleck worked after college as district executive for the Boy Scouts in Huntingdon and portions of Mifflin County and briefly sold insurance before becoming a full-time legislator.
He always “loved politics,” Fleck said, and the passion was directly influenced by family.
His grandfather was involved with the Huntingdon County Republican Committee for more than 50 years. As a boy, Fleck would ride his bike down Fleck Road with the local papers to his grandfather’s home, the farmhouse he now lives in, and read obituaries and political news to his grandfather, whose eyesight had declined.
At the time, parts of Huntingdon County happened to be represented by two of the most prominent politicians in Pennsylvania. Rep. Sam Hayes was the House majority leader, and Sen. Robert Jubelirer was president pro tempore of the Senate, and they were deeply involved in all major legislation.
“These guys were like celebrities to me,” Fleck said. A Jubelirer bobblehead perches on a shelf in his home.
Jubelirer would serve 15 months as lieutenant governor after Gov. Tom Ridge resigned on Oct. 5, 2001, to become President George W. Bush’s homeland security adviser in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Ridge’s resignation meant that Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker was sworn in as governor, and Jubelirer, as president pro tempore of the Senate, became lieutenant governor for the rest of Schweiker’s term.
In 2006, Jubelirer lost his state Senate seat in a Republican primary. Hayes left office in 1992 after 22 years in the chamber and was succeeded by Republican Larry Sather.
Fleck won his first political office in 2001, when he was elected to the school board of the district where he grew up, Southern Huntingdon.
In 2006, when Sather decided to retire as the 81st District representative, Fleck ran to succeed him.
Fleck won a four-way primary race with almost 51 percent of the vote. The general election also yielded a commanding victory, with Fleck defeating Democrat Roy A. Thomas by almost 30 percentage points.
His defeat in the primary
In the next three elections, Fleck ran unopposed.
After his 2012 reelection, Fleck, who had been married for about a decade, came out publicly in an interview with the Huntingdon Daily News. He had already told family, friends and staff, and he had separated from his wife before the announcement.
Along with his personal announcement in the article, Fleck told the Daily News that he was “still a Republican.” He also said: “I don’t see anything changing in my life. I don’t see my voting pattern changing. I just want to do my very best for the 81st District. I’m just trying to be authentic and I do owe it to my constituency to do that.”
He and his ex-wife remain good friends, Fleck said, and she hosted a meet-and-greet event for professional women in Huntingdon County during his campaign this fall.
Earlier this year, Rich Irvin, the treasurer of Huntingdon County for 18 years, decided to take on Fleck in the primary. Although Irvin filed papers to get on the Republican primary ballot, his petition was rejected after he did not file a financial disclosure form.
Waging a write-in campaign, however, Irvin, beat Fleck 3,624 votes to 3,397 on the Republican side. But on the Democratic ballot, Fleck got 906 write-ins to Irvin’s 889.
The wide margin of defeat on one and narrow margin of victory on the other ballot was not lost on Fleck.
“Bigotry in rural America is bipartisan,” Fleck said.
However, Fleck said that not everyone who voted against him did so because he is gay.
Relations with the Republican Committee in the county had begun to grow cold, Fleck said, and he thinks they were planning to run someone against before he came out.
C. Arnold McClure, chairman of the Huntingdon County Republican Committee, said, however, that the committee had not planned on running an opponent and had not picked Irvin. The committee was neutral during the primary, he said.
McClure acknowledged that some people were beginning to question Fleck’s voting record before he came out, and there had been talk in 2012 of running someone against Fleck.
“His announcement just made him vulnerable, and there was dissatisfaction with the base about his politics and his voting record beforehand,” McClure said.
The committee now supports Irvin because it is obligated to support the GOP candidate, McClure said.
Irvin did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
The Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a conservative organization based in suburban Harrisburg, sent out mailers and ran ads in a “voter education” campaign in 2012 in an effort to get someone to run against Fleck, said Leo Knepper, the organization’s executive director.
“His voting record has a very wide disconnect from the rhetoric he uses in the district, like being a conservative,” Knepper said.
Knepper pointed to Fleck’s opposition to school vouchers as an example of his less-than-conservative record.
Despite running on the Democratic ticket, Fleck remains a Republican and said he will still be a Republican if reelected. Dozens of elephant figurines in his Harrisburg office are evidence of his party preference; there’s not a donkey in sight.
There are two reasons he would not change political affiliation, he said.
First, if he were to become a Democrat, he would come in as a freshman and lose seniority in Harrisburg, where length of tenure determines leadership and committee appointments.
Second, on the ideological level, he still identifies with the Republican Party.
Despite the fact the party will not gain a seat with a Fleck victory, the Huntingdon County Democratic Committee supports Fleck. The relationship with Fleck has always been productive, chairman Gabriel Gould said. He described Fleck as an “independent thinker” who worked with all of his constituents.
“We had an opportunity to run someone against Mike Fleck in the 2014 election and we didn’t, because Mike Fleck is well-liked and we trust him and he’s willing to work with us,” Gould said.
The Democratic Party will not support Fleck financially but will support him with manpower and help him campaign, Gould said.
Other gay legislators
Although Fleck was the first seated openly gay legislator in the General Assembly, he was not the first openly gay person to run and win election. That is Rep. Brian Sims, a Democrat, who won in November 2012 – a month before Fleck came out – and represents the 182nd District in Center City Philadelphia.
In an interview, Sims said having an openly gay Republican is important for lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) issues in Pennsylvania. Sims has worked with the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, an organization based out of Washington, D.C., that works to help LGBT people gain election at all levels of government, and he has researched the effect these LGBT office holders have had on policymaking.
When there are more openly gay legislators, better civil rights legislation has resulted, Sims said.
Sims also said Fleck’s election would also be significant because he is a member of the Republican Party, which controls the Pennsylvania legislature and, for now, the governor’s office. If Fleck were an openly gay Republican in a state dominated by Democrats, the effect would not be as great, he said
“But to have a guy like Mike Fleck that can speak to the real decision-makers in the state in ways that I might not always be able to, that’s really important,” Sims said.
In September, a third state representative, Sen. Jim Ferlo, a Pittsburgh Democrat, publicly said he was gay.
LGBT groups at the state and national levels have been following Fleck’s race.
Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA, said that group has endorsed Fleck and has contributed to Fleck’s campaign through a PAC.
However, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund declined to comment on the race in the 81st District. “While all of us at Victory have an affinity for Mike, we have not endorsed him, and our policy is not to comment on races where we haven’t endorsed,” said Jason Burns, political director of the Washington, D.C.,-based Victory Fund, in an email.
To be considered for endorsement by the Victory Fund, candidates must “be openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, demonstrate community support and a realistic plan to win, demonstrate support of federal, state or local efforts to advance LGBT civil rights via the legislative or regulatory process, demonstrate support of federal, state or local efforts to safeguard privacy and reproductive freedom,” according to the fund’s website.
Fleck has not met one of these requirements, Burns said, declining to say which one.
Since entering the General Assembly, Fleck has not been confronted by floor votes concerning LGBT issues. He has been asked how he would have voted if a bill making same-sex marriage legal in Pennsylvania had reached the floor of the House.
“I would like to think I would not have voted against it, but you have to pick your battles,” Fleck said.
A vote on marriage equality is now not likely to come to the floor. On May 20, the same day Fleck lost the Republican primary, U.S. District Judge John Jones III struck down Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban.
If reelected, Fleck said his activism would be limited to living his life and breaking down stereotypes.
“That’s my gay rights platform,” Fleck said. “Living in a rural area and being me. Let them see a gay person.”
Colleagues and constituents
One of the political heroes of Fleck’s youth, Jubelirer, has endorsed Fleck for reelection. He said Fleck has done an “outstanding job” in his House district and commands respect on both sides of the aisle, because he brings experience and seniority to the table.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Jubelirer said. “The district will have to decide what’s important to them and I hope they realize they have a budding star in Mike Fleck.”
Sen. John Eichelberger, who defeated Jubelirer in the 30th Senatorial District’s Republican primary in 2006, supports Irvin. Eichelberger said Fleck has developed close ties to public-sector unions, which generally oppose major changes and cutbacks to public employee pensions – a top fiscal priority of Republicans.
Not elaborating specifically, Eichelberger said he didn’t like the way Fleck’s coming out was “handled” and the way he “continues to handle it,” but the reason he supports Irvin is because Irvin is more conservative.
“Mike’s voting record has not been reflective of the district, particularly with fiscal issues, and that’s been a problem,” Eichelberger said.
Much like supporters and detractors in Harrisburg and elsewhere, Fleck’s constituents reflect the split narratives about the campaign. Getting a feel for attitudes toward him, both in terms of sexuality and ideology, has been difficult for Fleck.
“It’s hard to gauge how the public is,” Fleck said. “Everyone is so dang nice.”
Tony Seguin, a self-described political independent, and his wife Paula, a Democrat, own Boxer’s bar in downtown Huntingdon. Both support Fleck. The couple have lived in the area for 25 years and described Fleck as a good representative. Fleck is more experienced than the challenger, who the Seguins said is not qualified for the job. Those who want to see Fleck ousted are playing on homophobia in the area, Tony Seguin said. “Mike’s a good guy and he cares about the area,” Paula said.
Pat Shope and her family, also of Huntingdon Borough, support Fleck for his experience and described the challenger as an “unknown.” “We’re going to vote for what we know and what we know has worked in the past,” she said.
Ian Thompson knows both Fleck and Irvin personally and volunteered for Fleck in previous campaigns. Not anymore. He wrote-in Irvin and supports him in the general election. Fleck is a nice man and their differences are “nothing personal,” Thompson said. He said Fleck does not fight for his constituents; that he is “very interested in what happens in the rest of the state but not what happens in the district.”
Bill Colyer lives in Cromwell Township, right outside of Orbisonia. A “Rich Irvin” yard sign sits outside his home. For Colyer, the decision to support Irvin is personal; Irvin is a friend and he does not know Fleck. Although Colyer said Fleck’s decision to come out probably hurt his chances at reelection, Fleck’s sexuality does not bother him. “He was honest,” Colyer said. “It doesn’t matter to me what he does at home as long as he does what he’s supposed to do at work.”
The sentiment was echoed by Michelle Jiacobello of Mount Union. A lot of people in the community are pulling for Irvin, she said, but she is leaning toward Fleck. His sexual orientation probably influenced some people in the district, she said, but it was not an issue for her.
“There’s a lot more than him,” she said. “As long as he does what he says he’s going to do, that’s all that matters.”
Judy Woodcock, also of Mount Union, said that a gay high school student lived in her home and she has nothing against Fleck’s sexual orientation. “I just don’t think he did that much for the area,” Woodcock said.
Cathy Reahm of Huntingdon Borough knows Fleck because when she had a problem with child support, she went to Fleck’s office and the matter was resolved within a week. Reahm said she thinks the only reason there is so much resistance to Fleck this year is because he is gay. “I think it’s really the older generation that’s shocked about Mike coming out and that’s why they’re upset,” Reahm said.
Gould, the Democratic chairman, said that there had been a conservative shift in the Republican committee in recent years but that it had become clear the county Republican Party was no longer supporting him after he announced he was gay. “Mike Fleck is a candidate that didn’t have to run a reelection campaign until he came out,” Gould said.
Some critics of Fleck say he is overstating the effect of his coming out.
One of these is Richard Waite, who lives near Fleck in Springfield Township. Now a former supporter of Fleck, Waite said he signed petitions that helped Fleck get on the ballot for his earlier races for the school board and state representative. “Mike keeps saying it’s because he’s gay, but I knew that when I signed his petitions,” Waite said.
Madonna, the political science professor and pollster, said he had not conducted polls on the 81st District race. The House Republican Campaign Committee has decided to remain neutral, which is an advantage for Fleck, Madonna said. “I just don’t know,” he said. “I would predict Fleck would have a tough time, but I don’t know if he’ll lose or not.”
Fleck said his own campaign poll in late September put him ahead of Irvin by 5 percentage points.
No matter what happens, Fleck said he never wanted to be a career politician and would be “perfectly fine” doing something else. He said he has received several job offers.
If he were to win, he said, there are a few things left he would like to accomplish as a legislator, such as working to update state law governing charter schools and cyber schools to correct what he perceives to be problems.
Fleck said he always wanted to leave Harrisburg on his own terms.
“I never wanted to wonder if I would have been reelected,” Fleck said. “This way, I’ll know either way.”
(Clayton Over is a senior majoring in journalism from Williamsburg, Pennsylvania. This story was first published in The Lion's Roar.)