HUNTINGDON - Since 2012, political observers from central Pennsylvania to New York City have wondered: Will May 20, 2014, be the day state Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, faces his one insurmountable challenge?
This year's Republican primary marks the first time the young, successful and nationally known state representative has faced a contender from his own party. It's also the first election since Fleck's 2012 announcement that he's gay - an announcement that made him an overnight trailblazer as the first openly gay Republican state lawmaker in the United States.
"I have a great team behind me, and we are already in the trenches," Fleck said in an email interview Thursday. "I actually feel reinvigorated after never [having] an opponent these past
But while some wondered whether Fleck's announcement would seal his fate in the deeply conservative district, it's far from clear that, in the year 2014, voters care enough about a candidate's sexual orientation to turn against him. In fact, Fleck's campaign coffers have overflowed in the past year, with even Democrats sending money for his re-election bid and the New York Times bolstering his national profile.
"I'll say it's certainly a significant help in fundraising," said Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College. "The same is true for openly gay candidates. Once he [came out], that opened a floodgate of support."
Fleck's campaign received more than $40,000 in 2013, a nonelection year, according to
state campaign finance documents.
That's more than he got in the four prior years combined; for comparison, state Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, got $5,000 in 2013.
The difference: Fleck is up against Huntingdon County Treasurer Richard Irvin for the May 20 Republican nod, and more challengers could emerge in the coming weeks.
Irvin, an 18-year veteran in county government, said he's facing Fleck from the right, citing job creation, pension reform and lower property taxes as his key issues. In an interview Wednesday, he said he's watched the burden on taxpayers rise gradually as the years have passed.
"I feel the climate in Harrisburg has been changing and is going to change," Irvin said.
Irvin made his candidacy official in a November speech at the steps of the Huntingdon County Courthouse - two months after an intensive profile of Fleck by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni said, "[Fleck] suspects that some national antigay organizations will funnel money into the district to oust him."
It's a suspicion Irvin laughed off Wednesday, noting that his campaign funds have come mostly from events in Huntingdon County fire and Grange halls. Irvin said he won't accept money from political action committees as a matter of principle.
"I'm not seeing that at all. ... I haven't had any [antigay groups] really approach me," he said, noting that he doesn't take issue with Fleck's private life. "In fact, it's been an uphill battle for me to have an interview without the sexual orientation issue coming up."
And while antigay groups might not have jumped in, conservative pressure group the Citizens Alliance for Pennsylvania - which targeted Fleck in 2012 and contributed to the defeat of Altoona state Rep. Rick Geist - has returned with mailers and advertisements again accusing him of being insufficiently conservative, Fleck said.
"Given the fact that the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania has committed over $100,000 dollars to oust me, I need to raise well over $100,000," he said.
If anything, Fleck's status as a national trailblazer seems to have boosted his finances. A year-end donation summary shows a wide range of backers both predictable and surprising, from a Fox News analyst to a PAC affiliated with Democratic state Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia.
Among his biggest supporters are union-affiliated groups like the Good Jobs PAC, which supports labor-friendly Republicans.
But thousands of dollars have come from donors in New York City and Washington, where supporters who might otherwise disagree with Fleck's politics have emerged to help.
"It was the first time they ever held a fundraiser for a Republican," Fleck told the Philadelphia Inquirer after New York's Victor and Betsy Gotbaum, the former head of the city's largest public union and New York's former Democratic public advocate, threw a $100-per-head fundraiser for his campaign. Donors included the trustees chairwoman of the New York University Institute of Fine Arts - not a typical title to appear in a rural election in central Pennsylvania.
Since his last filings became public, Fleck said, he's raised $30,000 more at a Pittsburgh fundraiser sponsored by House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Sewickley, and plans a series of local events in the coming weeks.
While Fleck may have worried that his opponents would benefit from his 2012 announcement, Madonna said, in reality there are relatively few voters who would abandon a politician solely because of his orientation. Challengers are much more likely to attack Harrisburg's spending and political culture, he said, as Irvin has so far.
Statewide polls have shown that a sizable, and rapidly increasing, majority of Pennsylvania's population opposes orientation-based discrimination and backs gay marriage.
"He may have had concerns about it at the time. I can't say that's not a logical concern to have. ... But I don't know anyone who has faced a serious political problem because of it," Madonna said.
Regardless of his constituents' opinions on his personal life, Fleck has focused on more concrete issues in the race so far. On campaign literature and in interviews, he boasts of the funding he's secured for district tourism, his support for state prison employees and his work to ensure charter schools are held to the same standards as their public counterparts.
As opponents have emerged locally, however, Fleck's state and national profiles have only risen: He has been named to several groups' and publications' "top under 40" lists including the Altoona Mirror's "20 Under 40", and Washington-based magazine Governing named him one of the nation's "12 state legislators to watch in 2014."
With Fleck's help, others might follow his political path - he's set to appear on a panel of gay elected officials at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and his campaign contributed $1,000 to a fund for two openly gay Republican congressional candidates, according to filings.
"Equality issues do not resonate in my district, yet. But I know my coming out has had a huge impact," he said in an email. "I get letters all the time, and I hear from many people within central Pennsylvania, who simply don't have a friendly ear."
He's active on social media, as well, regularly interacting with supporters on Facebook and gaining press attention for a series of comical dispatches from last year's budget deadlock.
Last month, after Fleck posted one of his magazine accolades on Facebook, a supporter offered a telling reply: "Next you'll be governor."
A tiny thumbs-up logo showed that Fleck "liked" the comment.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.