By Susan Payne
A congressman with an anti-LGBTQ political past is trying something different this year as he attempts reelection against a gay rival in Palm Springs, a district with one of the largest concentrations of LGBTQ voters in America.
Republican Ken Calvert, who held on to his seat in Congress for 30 years, told the Los Angeles Times in July that his views have changed.
“It wasn’t always my position,” Calvert said. “It’s a different country than it was 30 years ago.”
Calvert’s change of heart seems necessary in a race that has competitively grown since the redrawing of California’s congressional boundaries, the LA Times reported.
The district Calvert currently represents is Republican. His opponent for reelection is Democrat Will Rollins, a former federal prosecutor who worked on Jan. 6 insurrection cases and campaigns with his partner, Paolo Benvenuto.
“It’s poetic justice,” said Sam Garrett-Pate, a Los Angeles-based spokesman for Equality California, a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ rights and has endorsed Rollins. “I don’t think there’s any other way to put it than what goes around comes around.”
In Calvert’s reelection, he has clear advantages, such as the benefits of incumbency and the backing of former President Donald Trump. Calvert raised $1.9 million to Rollins’ $1 million as of May 18, according to the Federal Election Commission. The new district retained 7 out 10 voters from his current district and its largest city is Calvert’s hometown, Corona.
GOP redistricting expert Matt Rexroad believes that economic headwinds for Democrats — inflation, sky-high gas prices — are a boon to Calvert, but future elections are in doubt, the LA Times reported.
“Where this seat is in 2028 or 2024, I’m not sure. I think it’s probably a good seat this time, but [it] is trending the wrong way in regard to the breakdown of voters in the Coachella Valley,” Rexroad said.
In the 2021 redistricting — the redrawing of congressional districts that occurs every 10 years after the U.S. census — Calvert’s district lost solidly GOP areas such as Temecula and Murrieta while gaining liberal swaths, most notably Palm Springs, the first city in the nation to elect an all-LGBTQ city council. Riverside County had already been getting less red, in part because of an influx of Los Angeles residents seeking more affordable housing, the LA Times reported.
The new 41st Congressional District goes from the equestrian community of Norco, and the suburb of Corona west to the golf courses and resorts of Indian Wells, Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage on the east.
Partisan shift and the addition of LGBTQ voters, magnified by the belief that gay rights are under attack nationwide and the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, made the district more competitive.
Calvert, 69, a small-business owner, is the longest-serving GOP member of California’s congressional delegation. He was first elected to represent the Inland Empire in Congress in 1992, according to the LA Times.
Two years later, one of his allies outed his rival, Mark Takano, as gay. In response, Calvert’s campaign sent voters hot pink and lavender mailers that claimed the Democrat had a “secret agenda” and asked whether Takano, who had not yet publicly disclosed he was gay, would be a “Congressman for Riverside … or San Francisco?”
Calvert disregarded the notion that his former race against Takano and his record on LGBTQ rights, would harm him upcoming campaign for reelection. Instead, he believes his work securing money for district priorities including transportation projects, infrastructure upgrades and the region’s military bases, as well as his evolving views on same-sex relationships are reasons new voters would back him.
“I’ve never had any animosity to the gay community,” Calvert said. “I come out of the restaurant business, for goodness’ sake. A lot of people who worked with me were gay.”
John Falcone, the treasurer of the Log Cabin Republicans of Coachella Valley — the local chapter of an LGBTQ Republican organization — told the LA Times he was dubious when Calvert reached out to the group this year. But after meeting with Calvert for more than an hour, the 59-year-old bank analyst said his concerns were assuaged.
“We talked about gay issues and his past record, and he was very, very open and very accepting,” said Falcone, sitting in the clubhouse of his Rancho Mirage country club, a chilled oasis on a sweltering desert day. “I give him credit for reaching out and I found him authentic. Going in, I was skeptical, but coming out, I thought, OK, he’ll be fine.”
Opponent Rollins told the LA Times he became interested in public service after seeing the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was in high school.
“Seeing Americans covered in ash on the street got me feeling — as it did for many of us — like I wanted to serve and help protect my country from the people who attacked us,” Rollins said. “But in 2001, it was still against the law [for gay Americans] to serve openly in the military. I was a closeted gay kid, and I was worried about being outed under that policy, worried about being humiliated, about humiliating my family.”
After high school, he pursed law and became an attorney. He worked with the national security division at the Justice Department, focusing on domestic terrorism cases in Southern California, the LA Times reported.
“The threats that the country is facing have changed, and some of those threats now come from within,” Rollins said, with the craggy peaks of the San Jacinto Mountains in the background. The 37-year-old decided last year to leave his job to run for office. “I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret not stepping up when one of these House Republicans is right in my backyard and voted to undermine our democracy after Jan. 6.”
After the insurrection in 2021, Calvert voted against certifying the electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania and said he believes there were voting irregularities in those states and acknowledges that Joe Biden is president.
On the other hand, voters have said his answer is disingenuous because Calvert sought Trump’s backing after the insurrection occurred.
“He wanted the endorsement of this man who tried to overthrow the government of the United States. What happened to your oath, Ken Calvert?” asked retired flight attendant Elle Kurpiewski, 75, who volunteers with a group called Democratic Headquarters of the Desert in Cathedral City. “I feel very strongly that we have an excellent candidate in Will Rollins who understands as a former federal prosecutor what an oath to your country means.”
Democratic voter John Lacombe, 66, lives in the Rancho Mirage area that were part of the new 41st district. Lacombe invited Rollins to speak to their Good Trouble Club, formed in homage to the late civil rights icon and Democratic Rep. John R. Lewis of Georgia.
“Will spoke so eloquently, so passionately, so intelligently,” Lacombe said in an interview in the community center of his gated retirement community. “For me, that was the moment that crystallized all of this…. That was the very moment that I went back to that conversation with my father. And I looked at [Rollins] and said, ‘It could have been me if it were 40 years ago.’ And so, I’m going to get behind this guy 100%.”
Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who has lived in Rancho Mirage since 2005, held a fundraiser for Rollins in May and raised $200,000. She said she expects the race to draw national attention, the LA Times reported.
“We have one of the clearest choices in the nation as to what the future holds for America,” Boxer said, pointing to Calvert’s votes against issues such as abortion rights and the Violence Against Women Act.
Takano, who has regularly collaborated with Calvert on legislation that benefits the region, has endorsed Rollins.
“I don’t bear this burning grudge about what happened in 1994, but what I do think is it will be an irony, a real twist, if an LGBT former prosecutor defeats congressman Calvert this November,” Takano said.