By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Ben West and Paul Rummell — the plaintiffs in the court case that brought marriage equality to the state of Oregon — have endorsed Dr. Monica Wehby, taking to the airwaves in television campaign ads sharing their thoughts on the Republican Oregon Senate candidate. In an exclusive interview, PQ’s Nick Mattos sat down with West, Rummell, and Wehby to have a candid interview about how the couple came to make the endorsement, their hopes and fears around the community response to the announcement, and the things that all three of them believe to be important to all Oregonians.
PQ Monthly: Ben and Paul — what made you decide to endorse Dr. Wehby?
Ben West: After the primaries and the lawsuit [resulting in marriage equality in Oregon] had chilled out, this race came to my attention. I talked to Paul and asked what he thought about endorsing her; we took a lot of our own space to think about it. We’re both very independent voices — Paul is a moderate Democrat, and I’m a Republican. We like to say we have a mixed marriage! [laughs] So, I reached out to Monica just out of curiosity — I wanted to get to know her as an individual… A couple weeks later, after she finished a surgical shift, Monica came down to Mint and we had happy hour together. Afterward, I told Paul that I was even more interested in her. Paul still had some concerns and trepidations about the endorsement, though, because it meant supporting someone from the other side of the aisle. I told him “Well, why don’t you just meet her? That way you can ask your questions and voice your concerns in person.” So, she invited Paul, our son Jay, and myself over; Jay played video games while we sat on the back patio and drank sweet tea, and got to know Monica not just as a political figure, but as a person. She gave Paul free reign to ask every question and voice every concern; what was supposed to be a 45-minute meeting ended up turning into over three hours. I definitely thought she was the best candidate then. After a few days of heartfelt thought, Paul came to me and said that he felt she was the best candidate as well due to her honesty, and her insight on the issues that face all Oregonians. That’s how we came to endorse Monica.
PQ: Dr. Wehby, what was your response when you heard from Paul and Ben?
Dr. Monica Wehby: I was just delighted to hear from them. What they’ve been able to do for marriage equality here in the state is just remarkable, and it takes a lot of courage and determination to stand up and accomplish what they’ve done. I was very happy to talk with them, and that they reached out to me in the first place. It’s such an important issue — I hate to see discrimination of any kind, and particularly of the sort that Ben, Paul, and so many of my friends in the gay and lesbian community have had to go through. I’ve always been very supportive of marriage equality because it’s the right thing to do.
PQ: I’m curious, Paul — what do you hope for in making this endorsement?
Paul Rummell: I hope that a sense of fairness and balance returns to our political process in the state of Oregon. We’re a divided household — Ben’s a registered Republican, and I’ve been a registered Democrat for my entire adult life. When we work our differences out though, when we deliberate and talk about and sort them out, we find that we’re actually very similar on a lot of the issues. I felt like, in my initial meeting with Monica, that she represented that. She has some very fiscally conservative ideas, but a moderate stance socially — and I felt that she could really represent my family in Washington.
MW: The key is recognizing that we all have the same concerns. The issues that the GLBT community cares about are the same that everybody else cares about — the economy, jobs, healthcare, education for their children. Paul and Ben’s son Jay is just a doll, and lucky to have such wonderful parents. Paul and Ben have the same concerns that every family has. I think that’s why we see eye-to-eye on so many issues.
PR: Monica’s had to take some tough stances in the face of pretty extreme adversity, not just professionally as a physician but also spiritually, systematically, and politically. To me, she’s the poster child for women’s rights, and I think people should hold her up as an example of a woman who succeeded on her own, who fought the system and won. Realizing this was what turned me against Senator Merkley. His entire initial campaign against her was based on casting a picture of her as an emotional woman who couldn’t make rational or sensible decisions. It felt as though the underlying message was “Why don’t you just go back and be a good housewife, Monica? Just go be quiet, little lady.” This is a woman who’s fought against this her entire career, becoming the most successful neurosurgeon in the United States. Even people who oppose her politically still want her to operate on their children! [laughs] But seriously — this is a woman who has tenacity, integrity, and a strength of character. She will fight for the common good, and already has gone to bat for people like me.
PQ: One of the things that is really striking about this situation is that it illustrates there’s a lot more diversity in political belief and orientation within the LGBTQ community than many people give it credit for or even want it to have.
BW: What’s more Oregonian than being a pioneer? It’s in our DNA. The gay community has been largely politically pigeonholed — “if you’re gay, this is what you do and this is how you vote.” We live in a wonderful country with democracy, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression; we’re also in a wonderful LGBTQ community where freedom of expression is celebrated. I have to say, Paul and I are terrified, absolutely terrified, of a potential backlash from our community, and that we could be ostracized or threated for stepping out into the unknown here. However, this is who we are as Oregonians. LGBTQ issues are incredibly varied — they involve the economy, jobs, education, schools. I can now have a family that is recognized by the state, and I want my son to attend the best schools he can. I am so deeply saddened when I see multiple counties in our state going insolvent, and that the response is just indecision. All of these are Oregonian issues — I’m a 4th– or 5th-generation Oregonian and so is Paul, and we love our state. To step out of our comfort zone was a very independent thought, but we felt that Monica was simply the most independent of the candidates.
PQ: Can you talk more about that independence?
BW: We saw Merkley as someone who was almost just entitled to have the seat, but who’s demonstrated very little leadership. Oregon is not better after six years of having him in office, and I don’t see it getting better for giving him six more years. One of the great things about our system is that we can hold our leaders accountable. Paul and I believe strongly in speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves. As a pediatric neurosurgeon, Monica literally holds the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society in her hands every day, at three AM in the morning, when no one’s looking. We’re inspired by that, and I think most Oregonians are as well. Monica simply has the most broad vision for fixing the problems we face and caring for the vulnerable members of society.
PR: She has this incredible heart — the heart of a mother. She has a compassion and wisdom about her that I think the other side overlooks and attempts to hide with their attacks on her. I know that she’ll advocate tirelessly for Oregon.
PQ: Monica, I understand that you filmed a campaign ad with Ben giving his endorsement, which will be coming out very shortly; it’s also been reported that the Koch brothers withdrew their advertising funding from you for the month of October. Are the two things related — were they aware of the ad coming out?
MW: I don’t think there’s any relationship at all. I don’t pay any attention to how much they’re coming in or out or what they’re doing, because I’m busy running my own race. I don’t make decisions based on which SuperPAC comes in or out as a supporter. I’m my own person and I stand for what I believe in; I don’t see any point in running for office if you have to pretend to be somebody you’re not. I’m very open about who I am, and I’m always going to tell the truth about what I believe.
PQ: In conclusion, what do you all hope the LGBTQ community and Oregonians at large take away from this endorsement?
BW: First off, I don’t think there’s been any Oregon Senate candidate, Democrat or Republican, that has partnered in this way with such a known face of the gay community before. In this way, this is a historic endorsement. I also hope that it helps open up the flow of free thought and expression within our community. I hope that it illustrates that there really are all sorts of voices within the Republican Party and within our community. There’s one thing to be accepted in the courtroom, but as we know from the civil rights movement, real change didn’t happen until decades later. It took tireless work to bring people together, to make people understand that someone else’s family is just like theirs. I hope that this helps people in my party understand that my family is just like theirs, and that people in my community understand that we all face the core same issues.