Fleck fighting to retain his seat

HUNTINGDON – The contradiction wasn’t lost, it seemed, on Rep. Mike Fleck: On Tuesday, the day a federal judge finally opened the door for Pennsylvania’s gay couples to marry, voters in the 81st state House District quite possibly rejected the nation’s first openly gay Republican lawmaker.

The outcome still isn’t clear – Huntingdon County’s vote was still being re-tallied Saturday afternoon, and Fleck’s write-in primary challenger, Huntingdon County Treasurer Rich Irvin, said the result could end in court – but it was obvious Tuesday that residents of Fleck’s home county had voted against him by a wide margin. Write-in votes there comprised 62 percent of the total; only Centre County support might have saved Fleck.

But on Wednesday, long before the write-in votes were tallied in detail, Fleck had already publicly lashed out at the circumstances that conspired against him. Pointing to widespread anti-gay bigotry, a rumor-prone local media and the behind-the-scenes work of political opponent and state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., Fleck posted a long online explanation of his possible defeat.

And while many in Huntingdon County acknowledged that Fleck’s 2012 coming-out was a major factor in Irvin’s surprise surge, the reality might be more complicated than either side would state publicly.

A level playing field

“I am gay. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, it doesn’t define who I am, and quite frankly it’s the least interesting part about me,” Fleck said in his long Wednesday post on Facebook – a post widely shared and reprinted online. “Nevertheless, I knew that when I came out this race would be nothing more, nothing less than whether my constituency could wrap their mind around the fact that I was a gay man. People fear that which is different.”

It wasn’t long after December 2012, when Fleck first announced he was gay in a Huntingdon Daily News interview, that commentators and reporters began speculating: Would Fleck’s announcement destroy any chance at re-election in one of the state’s most conservative areas?

Fleck himself certainly prepared for the possibility: In a September interview with the New York Times, he described the possible threat of anti-gay forces promoting challengers and pumping money into the district. A powerful fundraising effort followed.

Irvin, who turned out to be Fleck’s first and only Republican challenger, said from the outset that he would attack the incumbent as part of the Harrisburg system – a political insider who hasn’t done enough to ease the burden of big government on working Pennsylvanians.

But Fleck saw another reason for Irvin’s opposition, unmentioned but obvious. Irvin ran, he said, because he could harness the power of the antigay vote and the support of closed-minded political groups and church figures.

“People know that we don’t differ on the fundamental issues the district is facing and that at the end of the day, he was simply recruited to run against me because I announced that I was gay,” Fleck told the Mirror in April.

Irvin has consistently denied the allegation, suggesting Fleck uses his orientation as a crutch to avoid discussing his other political weaknesses.

“I’ve done my best to make sure this campaign isn’t about sexual orientation,” Irvin said Thursday. “But the incumbent can make it about sexual orientation, no problem. Is that a level playing field? I don’t know.”

Involvement from outside

To an outside observer, it seemed the race was all but over in April, when a judge removed Irvin’s name from the ballot after he failed to file a required ethics form. Irvin promised to wage a write-in campaign, but with relatively little funding and Fleck’s name appearing alone on the May 20 primary, victory seemed all but certain for the four-term incumbent.

Fleck certainly had the money advantage: With support from political action committees and some unions – and a series of fundraisers, some sponsored by influential state Republicans and others held in outside cities, including New York – he quickly raised tens of thousands of dollars while Irvin raised small sums from friends and in fire-hall gatherings.

But he had at least one advantage, and it came from a powerful conservative force outside the district.

The Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a conservative pressure group that pumps money into races across the state, had targeted Fleck for years, even before his coming-out announcement. The group, which focuses largely on economic, not social, issues, even ran TV ads lambasting Fleck’s record before the 2012 primary – a race in which he didn’t have an opponent.

Critics contend that Fleck’s voting record, while conservative, isn’t as far to the right as many in his deep-red district might wish. On percentage rankings by some right-wing groups, he falls on the less extreme end of the Republican spectrum.

He has opposed school voucher programs, Eichelberger said last week, earning support from committees affiliated with teachers’ unions – a group often at odds with the most conservative Republicans.

In his online diatribe last week, Fleck named the Citizens Alliance specifically, noting that they circulated negative mailers throughout the district late last year. While officials at the Department of State said they have no record of Citizens Alliance spending in the 81st District leading up to the election, several people in the area, including Eichelberger, acknowledged that mailers were sent out.

In fact, Eichelberger, a fellow Republican, was among those Fleck named in his post: As an influential senator closely associated with the Citizens Alliance, the Blair County politician could have stopped the attacks but chose not to, he said.

“I knew Senator Eichelberger would be working behind the scenes to oust me,” Fleck wrote.

‘A very uncomfortable position’

Elected in 2006, Eichelberger is hardly known as a gay-rights proponent. In 2009, he earned criticism after reportedly saying of gays in a radio interview: “We’re allowing them to exist, and do what every American can do. We’re just not rewarding them with any special designation.”

In an interview Friday, Eichelberger readily stated that he backed Irvin, though he insisted his support didn’t take the form of behind-the-scenes manipulation, as Fleck suggested. He said he offered occasional advice, but is “not going to be a kingmaker” in any outside race.

Eichelberger suggested that some of the late-game opposition to Fleck derived from his support for House Bill 300, a bill that would bar sexual orientation-based discrimination in hiring and other settings. While that sounds fairly innocuous, Fleck said his opponents used the bill to falsely suggest he would support “grown men dressed as women being able to use the restroom with little girls.”

Eichelberger didn’t go that far, but he said Fleck’s 2012 coming-out announcement – considered a major personal milestone for many gays living hidden lives – turned him instantly from a local legislator to a “homosexual legislator.”

“A lot of people thought that Mike was a homosexual” before 2012, and it wasn’t an issue, Eichelberger said. “He didn’t announce it and it was OK. The feeling from many people is, he put them in a very uncomfortable position. If he had just gone about his business and people thought he was a homosexual or heterosexual or whatever, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

It certainly became a problem for some, particularly among socially conservative groups and churches that attack gay marriage and anti-discrimination bills.

A week before the primary, Eichelberger promoted and attended a Huntingdon seminar titled “Freedom in the Balance” and sponsored by the Pennsylvania Family Council. Fleck said he expected the council to appear in town before the primary, and accused them of stirring up opposition at the gathering.

Eichelberger acknowledged that gay rights were a major topic and that Fleck was mentioned, but said it was only in a segment that advised attendees to contact their legislators on the issues.

Other antigay groups’ names appeared in the race, as well.

Some Huntingdon County churches distributed a side-by-side candidate comparison from the American Family Association – considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – that was printed and circulated by Irvin’s campaign. Irvin said he printed the flyer, which Fleck said included nonsensical questions on Islamic law and border control.

“I absolutely do believe that I had support from different church organizations throughout the district. I’m proud of it,” Irvin said.

An aggressive fight

Voters in Huntingdon, the heart of the rural three-county district, said many of Irvin’s write-in supporters turned out to oppose Fleck’s sexual orientation. Campaign workers read Bible verses to those entering the polls, some said, although Irvin denied that he had anything to do with the activity.

“We’re so conservative politically. We’re churchgoing – we’re lousy with churches,” said Sarah May Clarkson, a registered Democrat in Huntingdon. “It was pretty aggressive, I thought, for a small local election.”

“I’m sure that was it” for many people, said Scott Fye, a chiropractor who stressed that he doesn’t take issue with Fleck’s life. “Was that in somebody’s thought process? Yes.”

Huntingdon County’s media environment likely didn’t help, either. Fleck described the Huntingdon Daily News’ weekly “Opinion Line” – a section that prints anonymous phone comments to the newspaper’s office – as a hotbed of personal attacks and rumormongering.

“I don’t really have a lot of faith in the Opinion Line,” Irvin said. “I know actually, for a fact, that many people will call into the Opinion Line to have something controversial printed, whether it’s true or not.”

Fleck also dueled with the publisher of the Valley Log, a small newspaper based in southern Huntingdon County, recently submitting a letter that accused the paper of “innuendo” and “attempt[s] to discredit my campaign.”

In the letter, Fleck accused Irvin’s campaign workers of circulating libelous letters that stirred up yet more accusations; he said at the time that he was considering defamation suits against some of his challenger’s supporters. Irvin denied any knowledge of or involvement in the purported offensive letters.

In the end, Irvin’s surprising success might have derived from a complex storm of factors: Fleck’s image as a less-than-total conservative; Irvin’s active, if not highly funded campaign; a flurry of outside involvement from groups like the Citizens Alliance and Pennsylvania Family Council; and, perhaps for many, the simple fact that Fleck is gay.

“Many people, they look for the Bible for moral guidance,” Eichelberger said. “And if they say homosexuality isn’t moral according to the scripture, well, that’s just a fact.”

‘Out of my hands’

As of Saturday afternoon, the situation was far from settled. The Huntingdon write-in count, watched by lawyers and occasionally by the candidates themselves, carried on long into Friday night and through Saturday.

Mifflin County’s handful of votes had Irvin ahead on the Republican ballot, but only for a tiny segment of the electorate. Centre County, part of which sits in the district, was strongly for Fleck, but a specific, detailed tally of the write-ins wasn’t available over the weekend.

It was even possible, at least as of Saturday, that one candidate could win the Republican ballot while another wins the empty Democratic slot through write-ins, carrying the race to November. Both Fleck and Irvin sought to protect their left flank by circulating mailers urging Democrats to write them in, some voters said.

That might fail, however, as voter Ashley Hicks of Marklesburg said.

“Huntingdon County is not going to put in a Democrat if a Republican is involved,” he said. “The Devil could be on the Republican ticket.”

And, even if the count becomes clear, either candidate could take the case to court – a possibility Irvin acknowledged Thursday.

In his post Wednesday, Fleck said of the campaign: “[It] was vicious, it was deceitful and it was personal.”

While he said he accepted the possibility that voters could reject him for his orientation, he expressed no regret for his decision to come out – a decision that earned him surprising allies, including some Democrats, and unsurprising enemies, including some in his own party.

“I wanted to be honest and free of the secrecy that had bound me for too long,” he said. “I knew back then, as I do now that my political fate was out of my hands.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.