By MICHELLE R. SMITH, Associated Press
WOONSOCKET, R.I. -- Laure Rondeau, an 82-year-old Catholic, supports Providence Mayor David Cicilline for Congress because he wants to get the troops out of Afghanistan and says Washington is losing sight of what's happening to regular people.
The sexual orientation of the openly gay mayor doesn't figure into her decision.
"That doesn't bother me at all," Rondeau says. "He's been a good mayor of Providence, and I think he'd do well in Congress."
Just three of the 535 members of Congress are openly gay, but two candidates hope to inch that number up to five this year: Cicilline, who is running to succeed fellow Democrat Patrick Kennedy, and Democrat Steve Pougnet, who's trying to knock Republican Mary Bono Mack out of her seat in California.
The races have drawn intense interest from gay advocacy groups, which are excited about two candidates who could help push for legislation to institute hate crime protections, prevent discrimination and advocate for same-sex marriage rights.
"There are so few people on the Hill who can speak authentically about what these things mean in their own lives," said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group that works to elect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender politicians. "We are vastly underrepresented."
Sexual orientation and gay marriage are not the flashpoints in this midterm election that they have been in the past. There are no statewide ballot measures on gay marriage this November, and polls have shown a growing acceptance of same-sex unions. Five states now allow gay marriage, including Rhode Island's neighbors Massachusetts and Connecticut.
That has bolstered the hopes of advocates, who would like to see the number of openly gay members of Congress increase.
The Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, has poured money into both races. The California seat has also been targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue" program as one of the seats it sees as having the best chances of moving from Republican to Democrat, although analysts say it could still be tough in what's expected to be a Republican year.
The three openly gay members are all in the House: Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jared Polis of Colorado. Polis said gay candidates must show they're looking out for everybody, the way Barack Obama did when he ran for president.
"He didn't win by being known as the black candidate. He won by being known as the candidate for all Americans," Polis said.
In Rhode Island, Cicilline is the best known and best-funded candidate in Tuesday's four-way Democratic primary, having raised more than $1.3 million, about three times the amount of his nearest Democratic rival and of the leading Republican.
He had about $450,000 in his account as of August, according to federal filings, after going on a TV ad spending spree with commercials on seniors and jobs - an important issue in Rhode Island, which had the fourth-worst unemployment rate in the country in July at 11.9 percent. The expected Republican candidate, state Rep. John Loughlin, had just $67,000 in his campaign account. There have been no reliable polls in the race.
Kennedy has for eight terms represented the 1st District, which stretches from blue-collar communities around Providence in the north to the blue-blooded seaside mansions of Newport in the south. Cicilline's sexual orientation has not been an issue in the race so far, and voters don't seem to care. Cicilline, who is single, has been attacked by his opponents, but for his record as mayor, not his personal life.
"People are really focused on the issues that are important in their own lives, and what they think the individuals running for Congress can do to respond to the urgent challenges that their families are facing," Cicilline said in an interview. "I think the sexual orientation of candidates in this race, including mine, have been irrelevant to voters, and I think that's progress."
Both Cicilline and Pougnet support legalizing same-sex marriage, which in past election cycles has been a divisive issue but has been less so this year, when there are no ballot initiatives on the issue.
Pougnet married his longtime partner in 2008, after same-sex marriage was legalized in California but before it was banned by the ballot initiative Proposition 8.
Since 2007, he's been mayor of Palm Springs, which has a large gay population, and he's mounting the most serious challenge yet to Bono Mack, who has for 12 years represented the 45th District in California's Inland Empire, a huge district that stretches from the Arizona border nearly to Los Angeles.
Pougnet had raised more than $1.2 million as of the end of June to Bono Mack's $1.7 million. That makes Pougnet her best-funded challenger ever. He launched his first TV ad last week in which he says Bono Mack "isn't getting the job done" on bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and foreclosures.
Bono Mack has rankled members of the gay community for not opposing Proposition 8 and for voting against the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Her campaign manager Ryan Mahoney says she supports leaving gay marriage up to the states and touts the support of groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans.
Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, said the district has become more Democratic in recent years and Obama carried it in 2008, but otherwise vulnerable Republicans like Bono Mack may be OK in a year expected to be a good one for Republicans.
But Pougnet calls it a "winnable race" and says he's working hard to meet voters, sometimes bringing his family - he and his husband have 4-year-old twins - to campaign events. He said his sexual orientation isn't as important to voters as the economy, foreclosures and health care - although he's had a lot of support from people around the country excited about the possibility of electing the first openly gay parent to Congress.
"Folks vilify gay couples with children, that somehow we're different and of course, we're not," he said. "When folks watch us climbing the Capitol steps ready to be sworn in, America will see a family."
Caption: Providence, R.I. Mayor and Democratic Congressional candidate David Cicilline talks to a group of senior citizens during a pasts dinner at a elderly care facility in Woonsocket, R.I. Stew Milne / AP Photo