Sherman – The Republican nominee for Congress in the 5th District is a gay man, a fiscal conservative and a Catholic convert weighing an awkward invitation from a prominent opponent of gay marriage to take on a Nixon-goes-to-China role in the culture wars.
Clay Cope, 54, the first selectman of this quiet lake community of 3,694, got into the race for Congress at the urging of Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who says Cope has a compelling story to tell about restoring the Yankee virtues of pay-as-you-go frugality and limited government to a town that had fallen into debt.
But if there is a formula for keeping God, guns and gays out of congressional politics in 2016, no one has shared it with Cope, a Texan who took up residence here with the fashion impresario Victor Costa, after first easing into the fabric of Sherman as weekenders from Manhattan. Their 28-year relationship ended in 2012.
Not only does pretty much everyone in town know his name, but Cope says most have his cell-phone number, too. Those who don’t can find him at the Town Hall, tucked behind the firehouse, the resident state trooper’s office and the theater troupe, the Sherman Players.
It’s a friendly place, even if Cope is thinking of getting a pistol for protection, a process that would require a background check by the town’s only cop, a resident trooper he selected. He also would need the signature of a first selectman named Cope, who never has refused to sign a pistol permit.
“Since Orlando, and this is really a major shakeup for me, I’m considering buying a firearm myself, getting a pistol permit, learning how to use it and protecting my family,” said Cope, who has been in a relationship for three years with Andres Sanchez, a Peruvian whose family emigrated to Danbury. “Because I’ve got three strikes against me – I’m openly gay, I’m Christian, and I’m an elected official, now running for Congress.”
Cope sat in his office on a recent night in late June, talking about security – border security and financial security – as issues voters have frequently mentioned to him since he announced his candidacy in January, standing with Boughton in Danbury City Hall.
Visitors to his campaign web site will find a call for a balanced federal budget and a boast that the debt in Sherman goes down every year. He strikes a middle ground on immigration reform, calling for better border security and “compassion for those who arrived illegally and want to correct their status.”
He agrees with his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, about the danger posed by accepting Syrian refugees, though he pointedly mentions that the need for a wall on the border with Mexico is one of his disagreements with Trump.
He was fatigued from a Board of Selectmen’s meeting that ran long. The town needs a new John Deere tractor, dump truck and lawn mower, things he says Sherman can afford to buy without borrowing, thanks to his insistence on building capital reserves. But the most urgent issues revolved around unleashed dogs, nuisance ducks and the return of toxic blue-green algae to Candlewood Lake.
Dog lovers who don’t pick up after their animals in Volunteer, Colonial and Veterans parks are a problem. Ducks are fouling Town Beach on Candlewood, forcing periodic beach closures. More ominously, the lake so central to quality of life and property values is threatened by failing septic systems and the dreaded blue-green algae.
“It’s a big problem for me, this poop,” Cope said wryly, a faint Texas twang still discernible after 15 years as a year-round resident of Sherman, the last five as its chief elected official supervising a municipal workforce of two dozen.
Cope is opposed to an ordinance that would allow inspections of septic systems, saying it already failed at referendum and would be intrusive in a town where many residents live on multi-acre properties and prize their privacy. He prefers an education campaign to encourage residents to regularly pump out their septic tanks, minimizing the flow of nutrients into Candlewood Lake.
Before fines are imposed for failing to pick up after dogs, he would prefer to see the town promote voluntary compliance by providing plastic-bag dispensers and more trash cans at the parks. On the matter of contracting with a dog service to chase away the ducks from Town Beach, he was agnostic, if not amused.
If elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Cope would be the first Republican to win a congressional race in Connecticut in 10 years. To get there, he’ll probably need a couple of million dollars – and ready answers to questions that have nothing to do with dogs, ducks and Yankee frugality.
Questions like: Where do you stand on the First Amendment Defense Act, legislation filed by congressional conservatives after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans against same-sex marriage?
It’s a new litmus test for social conservatives, and it is the ticket to an endorsement by the leader of the Family Institute of Connecticut. The question will have to wait.
“It’s just not one I’m ready to answer tonight,” Cope said. “That’s the truth.”
The bill’s backers say FADA, pronounced fa-da, would protect supporters of “natural marriage” by banning “any discriminatory action” by the government against a person, non-profit or business over “a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”
GOP presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina signed a pledge to push for passage their first 100 days as president. Trump didn’t sign, but a conservative web site posted a letter from Trump saying he would be supportive if Congress deemed it a priority.
Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, an opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, says Cope could be an important defender of religious liberty, a role that could win him the backing of what he has long insisted is a deep, untapped vein of social conservatism in a race against U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat seeking her third term. She opposes FADA.
“As a gay man himself he has the potential of a Nixon-goes-to-China by supporting the religious liberty of dissenters on an issue that has so polarized politics. He has the potential to bridge the chasm,” said Wolfgang, who has met with Cope.
The American Civil Liberties Union and others counter that the measure would do nothing less than codify a right to discriminate against anyone in an LGBT relationship, married or not, or any straight person in an intimate relationship outside marriage. The ACLU says FADA would undermine a wide range of federal laws that protect against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Boughton, one of three officials from nearby municipalities whom Cope says played an important role in coaxing him into the congressional race, fervently hopes Cope will not join Trump, Cruz, Rubio and the others as soldiers in the culture wars.
“Republicans have got to learn to speak to the people of the 21st Century, and we don’t win elections when we spend our time telling people what to do in the bedroom or what to do with their bodies,” Boughton said. “We win by creating jobs, by creating efficiencies in government.”
Cope has taken half of Boughton’s warning to heart: He has a natural reticence to talk about abortion, same-sex marriage, Wolfgang’s courtship or anything else that distracts from his message of security and fiscal conservatism. But he didn’t rule out lending his voice to Wolfgang’s cause or accepting an endorsement, if one is offered.
“I am very grateful and humbled by Peter’s position on me, because I think it would be very easy for him to very quickly dismiss someone like me, because I don’t hold traditional values in terms of marriage,” he said.
Even if he was not eager to talk about those values. Cope initially deflected a question about marriage.
“What about marriage?” he said.
Did the Supreme Court make the right call on same-sex marriage last year?
“It’s been done. What difference does it make at this point?” Cope said. “I hate to sound like Hillary, but what difference does it make?”
That’s the essence of what an exasperated Hillary Clinton told Congress when pressed about what happened in Benghazi.
But when pressed to take a position on same-sex marriage, Cope did not fight the notion it would be odd for a congressional candidate, gay or straight, to refuse to share his values on who should be allowed to marry.
“I’m gay. If I want the freedom to marry my partner, I should certainly have that freedom,” Cope said. “And it’s that simple. All people should be entitled to marry whom they choose.”
Perhaps hinting at his eventual position on FADA, Cope suggested he did not see how gay marriage impinged of the rights of those who see marriage as a straight institution.
“I always say that those people who don’t like gay marriage – don’t have a gay marriage,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”
Guns are another matter.
He says he supports the Second Amendment, a position that doesn’t reveal much. It is the same thing Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says, and he helped pass sweeping gun controls after the slaughter of 26 children and educators in Newtown, not far from Sherman.
The Supreme Court declared in 2008 that the Second Amendment guarantees citizens a right to possess firearms, without defining how far governments could go in regulating gun ownership. Just last week, the court refused to hear a challenge to a lower-court ruling upholding the constitutionality of restrictions Connecticut passed in response to Newtown.
Cope declines to say if Connecticut’s laws are overly restrictive, but he sees no pressing need for Congress to ban firearms purchases by those on terrorist watch lists, as favored by his opponent, Elizabeth Esty, one of the Democrats who staged a sit-in in the House to protest congressional inaction on guns.
Esty was at the center of a photograph that got extensive play online and in newspapers, including The Hartford Courant and New York Times.
“I thought she looked very silly,” Cope said. “They all did, but particularly in her case, because she was smiling for the camera. That’s not why people elect Congress people. They elect them to act, to work, not petulantly sit cross-legged on the floor in the House.”
Cope said the attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, by a U.S.-born man of Afghan descent who pronounced an allegiance to ISIS as he shot to death 49 club goers was not a justification for gun control.
“We don’t have a gun problem. We have a terrorist problem,” Cope said. “Why are we not addressing the terrorist problem? If I were a member of Congress, I would have already called up the head of the FBI and I would have said, ‘What’s going on here? Why did this happen? Who knew what?’ ”
In the meantime, Wolfgang awaits an answer from Cope on FADA.
The candidate eventually will have to say if he believes Congress needs to protect the religious liberty of people who believe sexual intimacy is the exclusive province of straight married couples. Or does he agree with the ACLU, that the measure really is about permitting discrimination against people like Clay Cope?