Jimmy LaSalvia has spent part of his political life explaining himself to people like me: gay liberals who don't understand why he's a Republican. LaSalvia, who remembers putting up signs for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in junior high, left his native Kentucky in 2006 to join the staff of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group. Dismayed at what he saw as the Log Cabin's leftward drift—the group declined to endorse George W. Bush in 2004, and barely came out for John McCain—and its focus on social instead of economic issues, he co-founded GOProud in 2009. The organization, which co-sponsored the 2010 Conservative Political Action Convention before conference organizers decided to exclude the group in subsequent years, made headlines for outing Rick Perry pollster Tony Fabrizio after the campaign released a homophobic ad and hosting conservative firebrand Ann Coulter at its annual fundraiser. It has affiliates in several states and bills itself as the gay Tea Party group.
LaSalvia made a name for himself as a political strategist and commentator in Washington, D.C. He's "the gay conservative" on television, where he's typically asked to provide commentary about his party's stance—and evolution, or lack thereof—on gay-rights issues. His goal, he says, was to reform the GOP from within: "For the better part of 10 years, I've worked to create an atmosphere in the Republican Party where gay conservatives can live openly, work, and be a part of the movement."
But on Monday, LaSalvia gave up on this Sisyphean task. In a blog post on his personal website, he announced he was changing his registration to "independent," saying he "just can’t bring [himself] to carry the Republican label any longer."
"I feel like a parent who has to practice tough love," he told the Prospect in an hour-long interview earlier this week. "When your child is a drug addict and rehab doesn't work and they just keep on using, at some point you have to put your foot down, lock the door, and cut them off."
What prompted you to leave the Republican Party?
I kept thinking, “I have conservative principles and values, but it doesn't appear that the Republican Party shares my values and principles.” I thought, “Maybe there's hope.” But I've come to the conclusion that there's not hope. I'm still a conservative. I hope we have a more conservative government to come in and implement free-market policies to help get the country going again. But in order to do that you have to win elections. Republicans aren't going to win election as long as voters think they're out of touch and can't relate to real life in America today. I don't know how you change that. You can change the messaging but at end of day, you can’t make somebody be in touch with real life. I just came to conclusion there wasn't any hope.
Is your change of heart specifically in response to Republicans' record on gay rights?
I am a limited-government conservative and they're big-government people. I am also opposed to bigotry of any kind, which they tolerate. Anti-gay, anti-Muslim bigotry—whoever it is—they tolerate it. I’m not saying all or a majority of Republicans are extremist bigots, but they put up with it. The best the leadership can do is say we need to treat everyone with dignity and respect, but they can't stand up and denounce bigotry outright. Bigotry stains everyone unless it’s denounced and denounced forcibly. No one in the GOP today has the guts to do that.
Is this you admitting failure? Giving up?
I've worked to make it so that straight conservatives can publicly support gay Americans and go as far as supporting gay marriage. I feel we accomplished that. Now, Republicans can feel free to stand up and say they support same-sex marriage. But I've noticed that the forces of intolerance in the party are stronger than ever. Frankly, I think that the reason is because the Republican Party is the last place they exist. The rest of America has moved on and the only ones left are activist Republicans. There are not that many of them, but they swing a disproportionate amount of weight because they're so concentrated in this party. As more and more people felt comfortable embracing gay Americans and talking about issues affect gay people, I thought anti-gay bigotry in the GOP would melt away and dissipate. It hasn’t.
Was there one final, last straw?
[Chuckles] No, I'll tell you—I left GOProud six months ago. I made the decision after the election that it was time for me to start doing other things. I stayed through last spring because there was the CPAC event and the Supreme Court cases. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this new majority of Americans who aren't happy with either party. I knew that I wanted to somehow be a part of this group; I just wasn't sure when I would change my registration. But lately, there’ve been a lot of things—Ken Cuccinelli's candidacy in Virginia, a Republican from Michigan posting horrible anti-Muslim stuff on Facebook. Nobody said a word. I reached out to people at the Republican National Committee to draw attention to it and tell them, “Once again, you should speak out against this.” It was dead silence from there. So it was like, “Okay, that’s it.”
Among party elites—the leadership—is there a realization that a change is necessary?
There is an intellectual realization among many in leadership that the Republican Party has got to change, but has a lack of testicular fortitude to do it. If you really want to make changes that are necessary, not everybody who is a Republican now is going to stay one. To be honest with you, some people are going to say, “Screw you, I’m gone.” You have to be willing to suffer the consequences in order to reap the big gains going forward.
It's kind of like [the Republican National Committee’s] autopsy report after the 2012 election and supposed changes. It's like taking a terminally ill cancer patient to get a makeover. It really makes her feel good and she looks great, but at the end of the day the cancer still kills her unless you cut it out. Republicans are not willing to cut the cancer out in order for healthy party to grow again.
The thing is, the people who are the cancer are not happy, either. They don't think Republicans are doing enough for them. The truth is, the forces of intolerance are never going to be happy. I can’t figure out why leadership hasn’t cut them loose long time ago. They are turning off multitudes of voters and only bringing in a handful of voters with them. It's the most crazy situation I've ever seen. It’s a tiny sliver of the voting population that they count on, and it’s like a drug addict who can’t give up on crack even though they know it’s not good for them.
How common are doubts and concerns like yours among Republicans?
I don't think anybody who's a Republican right now hasn't had a conversation with themselves about whether they can take it anymore—gay, straight, whatever. Not a single person is satisfied right now. Of course as a gay person, it’s been a rough ride, but I always had hope there would be big change with a national leader who could lead the way—a president, frankly. That could change things, but the truth is that unless a miracle happens, I’m not convinced that Republicans can elect another president because the cultural issues are so severe in the party right now.
What has the reaction to your announcement been?
In the last day and a half since I posted publicly about changing my registration, I have been bursting with enthusiasm based on the feedback that I've gotten from people all over the country—Independents and even people who are still Republicans saying, “I know exactly how you feel.” I feel as though I've hit a nerve and that so many can relate to what I've gone through.
I was beaten down for the last few years—all you have to do is Google to see how many times I’ve been kicked in the teeth—but this move has energized me like nothing I’ve ever done in politics. This is better because it’s real hope for me. I see enthusiasm from other people who are disillusioned with both political parties but passionate about their country. They want to make it better. I don't know what form my activism is going to take, but I know that it will happen with greater enthusiasm and energy.