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Candidates Clash Over Gay Question

By Raam Wong
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Northern Bureau
    SANTA FE— Congressional candidate Benny Shendo Jr. is under fire after raising questions about opponent Ben Ray Luján's sexual orientation and whether Luján has been honest about it.
    Shendo triggered the furor during a candidate forum earlier this week in Farmington, and a top Shendo campaign staffer went so far as to suggest Luján's family had hired a woman to pose as his girlfriend at public functions.
    Luján's camp condemned Shendo's comments and said Luján isn't gay. Spokesman Mark Nicastre described Shendo's remarks as a "desperate and low-class move by a fringe candidate who is not a factor in this election."
    Another candidate and a leader of a gay rights group also blasted Shendo.
    Shendo and Luján are running for the Democratic nomination for the northern New Mexico congressional seat now held by Rep. Tom Udall.
    Santa Fe, which has a large gay population, is one of the congressional district's urban centers. Farmington, which is generally considered more conservative and blue-collar, is another.
    Addressing Luján at the Farmington event on Monday, Shendo said: "You say you stand up for the people of New Mexico. And I want to know how you can stand up for the people of New Mexico if you can't stand up to your mom and dad about your lifestyle."
    In a written statement Wednesday elaborating on his comments, Shendo said the issue isn't Luján's sexuality but whether Luján and his parents— New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján and wife Carmen— are covering up by "so actively promoting publicly that (the younger Luján) has a girlfriend."
    That raises questions about Luján's "maturity and integrity" to handle the issue and serve in Congress, Shendo said.
    If public figures "actively put forward a deception to hide their homosexuality, then they send a terrible and damaging message that there is something wrong with being gay," Shendo said.
    The Luján campaign Wednesday denied the candidate was gay and said he has a longtime girlfriend frequently seen on the campaign trail.
    A Luján spokesman called Shendo's question at the Farmington debate "desperate and low-class" and said the incident should be a "non-story" as far as media coverage goes.
Criticism and support
    Santa Fe developer Don Wiviott, also a 3rd Congressional District candidate in the June 3 Democratic primary, slammed Shendo.
    "Rumors and innuendoes regarding the personal life of any candidate should play no role in this election," Wiviott said in a statement.
    Linda Siegle, a gay-rights activist and lobbyist for Equality New Mexico, said a person's sexual orientation is only relevant when a public figure known to be homosexual advocates anti-gay policies.
    That would be hypocritical and self-loathing, Siegle said. Otherwise, "I think people's private lives are their private lives," said Siegle, listed on campaign literature as a Luján supporter.
    But former State Rep. Max Coll— for decades, a leader in the liberal politics of Santa Fe— said he supports Shendo based on the issues and regarding his comments about Luján.
    "I don't care if somebody's gay or not," Coll said. "That's not an issue at all. ... (Shendo's) raising an issue about honesty and integrity, and that's an important issue to discuss."
    Shendo's camp said Luján's sexuality and the questions about his girlfriend are "public knowledge" but couldn't offer proof.
    Shendo's Wednesday statement said: "If all the people who have known Ben Ray over the years at the statehouse, in the community and in his own extended family, and have known for years and accepted him as gay are wrong, that's perfectly fine. His sexuality is not the issue here."
    Shendo campaign manager Todd Doherty on Wednesday suggested that Luján's girlfriend had been hired or arranged for him to "parade" around by his parents. When pressed for evidence, Doherty responded: "I guess I don't know that his parents arranged this."
    Shendo, from Jemez Pueblo, is a former state Indian affairs secretary in Gov. Bill Richardson's administration.
    "(Shendo) lost a lot of people's respect," Nicastre said.
Heating up
    Luján, a member of the Public Regulation Commission, responded to Shendo during the Farmington debate by saying he was honored to have his parents and that he was "not sure what you are referring to."
    Nicastre said Luján has been dating his girlfriend since before veteran Republican Sen. Pete Domenici announced his retirement last year, prompting Udall to give up his seat and run for the Senate.
    Luján, five other Democrats, two Republicans and two independents are campaigning for the open seat.
    Nicastre also said Luján's girlfriend had helped him get through the ups and downs of the election.
    Shendo's comments added another hot-button issue to a campaign that has heated up in recent days after months in which the candidates played nice.
    Both Wiviott and Luján have begun airing television commercials slamming one another. And this week Luján took out a loan to pump an additional $150,000 into his campaign coffers while Wiviott loaned his largely self-financed campaign another $250,000. He had already put about $1 million into the race.