Ex-Bush campaign operative battles for gay marriage, a cause he once opposed


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As the Supreme Court considers overturning California's ban on same-sex marriage, gay people await a ruling that could change their lives. But the case has already transformed one gay man: Ken Mehlman, the once-closeted Republican operative who orchestrated President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election on a platform that included opposition to same-sex marriage.

Now Mr. Mehlman, a private equity executive in New York City, is waging what could be his final campaign: to convince fellow Republicans that gay marriage is consistent with conservative values and good for their party. His about-face, sparked in part by the lawyer who filed the California lawsuit, has sent him on a personal journey to erase what one new friend in the gay rights movement calls his "incredibly destructive" Bush legacy.

He remains controversial, both applauded and vilified. On the left, he is either an unlikely hero or a hypocritical coward. On the right, some Republicans embrace him; others deem him a traitor.

Coming out "has been a little bit like the Tom Sawyer funeral, where you show up at your own funeral and you hear what people really think," Mr. Mehlman said in a recent interview in his office at Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. "A big part of one's brain that used to worry about this issue has now been freed to worry about things that are much more productive."

Mr. Mehlman, 46, remains the hyper-intense, guarded strategist he was in his Bush days, with the same habit of looking past people instead of meeting their eyes. He shuns most interviews and still deflects personal questions, as he did back when rumors about his sexuality swirled.

"I have a happy life today, and I had a happy life before," he said.

Freed of the burden of secrecy, he lives in the gay-friendly Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan and summers in the Hamptons.

Another friend called him "more and more comfortable in his skin."

He dates but said he was not ready to marry.

He will not talk about any guilt he might feel for serving as the 2004 campaign manager, when Mr. Bush, courting Christian evangelicals, called for a federal ban on same-sex marriage and conservatives marched to the polls. Mr. Mehlman was rewarded with the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, a job he held until 2006.

Some who once taunted him now praise him, saying coming out is difficult and anyone can change.

"If you're going to have an epiphany, do it like Mr. Mehlman," said John Aravosis, a gay blogger.

Others are still furious.

"I doubt Ken Mr. Mehlman will ever be anything more than a bitter footnote in the history of our movement," said another blogger, Joe Jervis.

And in Ohio, where Mr. Bush's re-election coincided with voter approval of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Mr. Mehlman is persona non grata, said Eric Resnick, a gay journalist who in 2005 confronted the party chairman about his sexuality at a dinner. (Mr. Mehlman ducked the question.)

"Ken Mehlman did a lot of damage in Ohio," Mr. Resnick said. "He has not come back to Ohio and said, 'I'm sorry for what I did to you.'"

Despite or perhaps because of this past, Mr. Mehlman has carved a rare niche as a go-to Republican in the overwhelmingly Democratic gay advocacy world.

Deploying his vast Rolodex but staying mostly behind the scenes, he has worked with the White House (President Barack Obama was his classmate at Harvard Law School) to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy; lobbied lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage in states like New York, Minnesota and New Hampshire; served as an informal adviser to Republicans including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who backed marriage rights after learning his son is gay; and recruited Republican donors, helping to raise $4.5 million for gay causes, including an anti-bullying campaign.

He also founded a small nonprofit, Project Right Side, to develop polling data to appeal to conservatives. He sits on the board of the group that brought the case challenging Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban and gathered the signatures of more than 100 Republicans on a legal brief supporting the suit. When advocates in Maine, where voters rejected same-sex marriage in 2009, tried again last year, Mr. Mehlman helped retool their advertising. They won.

"He brought a totally fresh perspective that nobody else had, and because he was so prominent, people had to take note," said Matt McTighe, who managed the Maine effort.

In articulating a conservative case for gay marriage rights, Mr. Mehlman invokes the term "civil marriage" as a reminder, he said, that he is talking about "marriage under the law, as opposed to marriage as a religious sacrament."

In speeches, he likes to say Republicans should back same-sex marriage "because we are conservative, not in spite of being conservatives."

He uses Republican-friendly words like "freedom" and "liberty" as opposed to "equality" -- language that Mr. McTighe said resonated with Republicans and conservative Democrats in Maine.

Nationally, Mr. Mehlman has an uphill battle. Polls show roughly two-thirds of Republicans oppose same-sex marriage, although support among those under 30 is higher. So reaction to him in his party is mixed.

Friends from the Bush days, like Tim Goeglein, an evangelical Christian who works for the advocacy group Focus on the Family, do not broach the topic.

"We know where each person stands, so we have not had a fulsome discussion," Mr. Goeglein said.

Mr. Mehlman credited Theodore B. Olson, a solicitor general under Mr. Bush, with providing a spark that set him on his current path. In 2009, Mr. Mehlman, out of politics but still in the closet, invited Mr. Olson -- who filed the California suit -- to lunch.

Mr. Mehlman said he had been thinking for some time that "a strong argument could be made from both the freedom and the family values perspective."

Mr. Olson told him that courts had deemed marriage a "fundamental right." The next year, Mr. Mehlman told Mr. Olson that he is gay and wanted to help.

Critics have called what followed "Ken Mr. Mehlman's apology tour," a coming-out strategy unveiled in August 2010 with the precision of a political campaign. Mr. Mehlman -- who once flatly denied being gay -- granted a lone interview to Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, in which he said he regretted not being "where I am today 20 years ago."

He pledged to become an advocate and apologized to gay audiences.

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