Party of one 

Gay Republican caregiver aims for state Senate seat

To say that state legislative candidate Kevin Kerr stands out would be an understatement. The political newcomer gunning to unseat popular Democratic incumbent Dave Wanzenried in Senate District 49 this November is an openly gay Republican who supports furthering legislative protections for homosexuals in Montana. What’s more, the self-described fiscal conservative works as a registered medical marijuana caregiver.

The 55-year-old Montana native and longtime Missoula resident says he identifies with a different type of Republican than those who want to, for instance, criminalize his sexual orientation. He believes in smaller government, less taxes and constitutional principles. Kerr acknowledges he’s running a long-shot campaign, but hopes to add to two of the more politically charged debates—gay rights and medical marijuana—between now and Nov. 2.

For instance, he doesn’t mince words when discussing his own party’s decision to reaffirm its official platform over the summer, including the controversial stance on making homosexual acts illegal.

“The platform and what I have read of it—and I’m putting it bluntly—sucks,” Kerr says. “When it comes to our homes, they need to keep their big noses out if it.”

Kerr says the issue is indicative of how the GOP has strayed from its core beliefs.

“I feel that it’s no government’s business what we do in our home, period,” he says. “And I don’t care if it comes down to homosexuality, if it comes to gambling, if it comes to liquor, if it comes to smoking, whatever. And if you can’t stop there, you need to get off the platform and go somewhere else.”

Both state and federal Supreme Courts have said that punishing consenting adults for what they do in their bedrooms is unconstitutional. Despite that fact, the GOP continues to stand by its platform. The party also stands by Kerr.

“There are people who call themselves Republicans who are conservative on one side and liberal on the other,” says Montana GOP Chairman Will Deschamps. “We’re supporting Kevin…We stand prepared to help him in any way that he would wish.”

Kerr says he doesn’t want the GOP’s support. In fact, he plans on giving back a financial contribution the party already made to his Senate campaign.

“It’s getting returned,” he says.

Kerr says if he is elected, gay rights will be one of his main priorities. Specifically, he wants to introduce state legislation similar to the anti-discrimination ordinance Missoula passed earlier this year. The law, which was the first of its kind passed in the state, makes it illegal to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation or gender expression. Kerr also supports the creation of domestic partnership benefits for same-sex couples.

Beyond LGBT issues, Kerr calls for less involvement and more fiscal responsibility from state leaders. As for medical marijuana, he thinks the state law should remain unchanged, but be better managed by the Department of Public Health and Human Services. He says growing the economy requires cutting taxes so small businesses—like his caregiver operation—have room to expand and innovate.

Senate District 49 candidate Kevin Kerr, an openly gay Republican, says his party has lost its way when it comes to individual rights. “I feel that it’s no government’s business what we do in our home, period,” he says. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Senate District 49 candidate Kevin Kerr, an openly gay Republican, says his party has lost its way when it comes to individual rights. “I feel that it’s no government’s business what we do in our home, period,” he says.

“If we always look to our big brother in Washington D.C. to create jobs for our country, we’re going to be in a world of hurt,” Kerr says. “I feel that the less government we have, the better. The smaller government we have, the better. And the free-enterprise system is what works, it’s what made America.”

Kerr decided to run mostly out of frustration; he’s simply tired of business as usual. But he has zero political experience, and acknowledges his opponent will be tough to beat. In 2006, Wanzenried beat Republican Rusty Vanoverbeck with 63 percent of the vote.

“It was a crazy thought—still is a crazy thought,” Kerr says of his decision to run for office.

Wanzenried has served five terms in the Montana House of Representatives and the state Senate since 1991. He says the 2011 Legislature will face enormous challenges, most notably a severe budget crunch. As one-time only federal stimulus funding that supported education and health and human services programs dries up, some essential services will be in jeopardy.

“If I have a philosophical approach, there are some things that government must do, and that’s to take care of our less fortunate neighbors, that would be the frail, the weak, the seniors,” he says. “We need to make sure we don’t forget and treat them simply as numbers. We cannot do that.”

The incumbent also has a strong track record of supporting LGBT issues, and thinks progress can be made during the next session with cooperation from both sides of the aisle.

“The emphasis tends to focus on what we disagree on,” Wanzenried says. “These issues tend to lend themselves to be either black or white. But there’s a spectrum of issues here. And I’m hoping that we can identify enough votes to create a critical mass to get some of them, if not all of them, done.”

Wanzenried hopes to hash out all of these topics with Kerr at a public debate before Nov. 2, but so far none has been set up.

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