As the Portland scandal mushrooms higher on the national scene, even Time Magazine has waded into the speculation on whether out gay Mayor Sam Adams' promising political career will survive the uproar. Adams is the first gay man to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city. Right now he is trying hard to hang on. As I write this, the 45-year-old mayor still insists that he won't resign.
With the pros and cons hotly debated by different LGBT factions, even some of our own are calling for Adams' resignation. His critics cite what they see as a serious breach of public trust -- namely, when Adams lied. At first Adams said that he had no sexual relationship with Beau Breedlove, a former intern. The young man corroborated his story. Later Adams admitted that there was a relationship, but said it started only after Breedlove turned 18. He apologized for his lie, and also admitted that he had asked Breedlove to lie as well.
Other LGBTs defend Adams fiercely, insisting that Adam's relationship with an 18-year-old male is just a molehill being turned into a mountain.
Adams' supporters are surprisingly many, and they cite LGBT people's right to have adult consensual sexual relationships, which is now generally established by the overturn of Bowers v. Hardwick, not to mention that Oregon decriminalized consensual same-sex sex between adults in 1971. The supporters demand that the current legal relationship between the two men should not be attacked. They say the lie doesn't bother them.
Legally speaking, however, the issue isn't about the post-18 relationship. It's about what may or may not have happened between the two while Breedlove was still a minor and a legislative intern that Adams was mentoring. In an interview with The Oregonian, Breedlove later told a different story, alleging some degree of sexual contact by Adams while he was still 17.
Result: Adams is now being investigated by the Oregon attorney general's office. Prosecutors want to know whether there was a violation of Oregon's rather convoluted definition of a sexual offense against a minor. Adams knows he's in trouble -- he has retained Bob Weaver, a top criminal lawyer in the region. According to reports I've read, His Honor could be charged with felony second-degree sexual abuse, as well as misdemeanors of third-degree sexual abuse, contributing to the sexual delinquency of a minor and sexual misconduct. Oregon law states that a person under 18 doesn't have the ability to consent.
Because he lied, Sam Adams may also be charged with obstructing justice. But meanwhile, Adams is innocent till proven guilty. I certainly hope the investigation proves him innocent.
Glow of Power and Authority
The subject of LGBT sex with minors is a touchy one for us because of that long-lingering toxic stereotype that "all homosexuals are child molesters." We wince when we see this slur flung at us, especially if it is directed at public figures who are out, because this kind of scandal always comes down on us harder than it does on heterosexuals. Nobody ever calls for all heterosexuals to be wiped off the face of the Earth because a few of them have sex with under-age teens. And there are some LGBT adults who do this. Their motive can range from the older person who is exploiting youth vulnerability and inexperience, to the 19-year-old who winds up prosecuted for being in a committed loving relationship with a 17-year-old. The law doesn't view love as an extenuating circumstance.
These days, 17-year-olds may be physically and even mentally very mature for their age, but most are hardly in an emotional or spiritual place to hold their own in a relationship with an older, more savvy person. The glow of power and wealth and authority around an older public figure can be alluring for a minor, especially one who is an ambitious worker bee somewhere in the political world. And the public figure can get caught in the myth of his or her own glow. This danger exists for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.
So the law draws a hard line in the sand. In recent years, many states have tightened their sex laws, raising the age of consent to 18.
Considering how puritanical our country is, a surprising number of sex scandals are perpetrated by pillars-of-society figures, especially clergy, judges and elected officials. As we read the news reports, many of us wonder, "What was he/she thinking?" But, as with other crimes, people in high places who commit statutory sex offenses probably weren't thinking at all at the time, and seem to have lived in a bubble where they were blind to the risk or assumed they wouldn't get caught.
Many of us are wincing now as scandal hits the popular and charismatic figure of Sam Adams.
As Adams' future is debated, we can look at examples of other gay politicians who stumbled into sex scandals. In these cases, the outcome depended on which side of the age-of-consent line the politician stumbled.
If the stumble is with someone over 18, the political career has a good chance of surviving. Most famous example: openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts). In 1989 the Washington Times broke the story about Frank's personal aide. Goodlooking Steve Gobie had been fresh out of jail and on parole when he met Frank. The Congressman paid him for sex, then took him in, gave him a job as aide and housekeeper, and was mentoring him. Gobie returned Frank's favor by running a prostitution business out of the Congressman's apartment in Georgetown, with clients slipping in and out. After the scandal broke, Frank didn't lie about his relationship with Gobie, but insisted to the House Ethics Committee that he hadn't known about Gobie's pimping.
The key fact: Gobie was 28 years old at the time. If he'd been under 18, Frank's Congressional career would have been road kill. As it is, Frank got off with a reprimand from the House. He was re-elected with a bang, and today is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. With a Democratic majority now swinging D.C., Frank is one of the powers in the Obama Congress.
The exact opposite happened to Rep. Mark Foley (R-Florida). Foley had never come out, but his sexual orientation was evidently well-known in the Beltway. In 2006, the public learned that Foley had allegedly sent sexually explicit emails and IMs to Congressional pages aged 16 and 17 years old. Foley was investigated but never charged. But the ongoing fallout, which revealed that some Republican leaders had ignored previous complaints about Foley's behaviour with pages, meant that the Representative was finished. He resigned later in 2006.
In the opinion of some pundits, Foley's disgrace contributed to the Republicans' loss of their control of Congress. Ironically, Foley had chaired the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, and had introduced bills that were punitive towards sex predators.
The case of Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) sits more on the cusp -- he insists he isn't gay, and prosecution focused around a misdemeanor charge of "disorderly conduct." Craig fell for a law-enforcement sting in an airport restroom when he evidently made attempts at sexual contact with a cop lurking in the next stall. In other words, there were no charges involving age of consent. When it was all over, Craig copped a plea of guilty, but preserved some shreds of political status, and managed to avoid resigning. In 2009 he left Congressional office without seeking re-election. Craig continues to deny that he's gay, though a number of gay men came forward to allege that he had sex with him.
Sex scandals can hit straight politicians just as hard. And for them, the outcome is usually determined by that same age-of-consent line in the sand.
Best example: Bill Clinton. Since intern Monica Lewinsky was 22 when Clinton first had what he claimed was just oral sex with her, there was never any question of a statutory sex offense. The scandal was mainly about Clinton's poor judgment and the lies he told. But if Lewinsky had been a minor, President Clinton would have been the biggest road kill in U.S. history. Not only would he have been compelled to resign, but charges could have been filed. Any conviction and resulting "disgrace" might have tinged Hillary Clinton's career as well.
So the Oregon investigation of Sam Adams is focused in that red-alert area -- sex with minors.
As one commenter said on Democratic Underground, "Leave interns alone. I don't understand why nobody ever cares that people in positions of authority are having sex with subordinates. Big No No."
Ex-Cons in Office
Some convicted felons can and do return to the political arena after getting out of prison.
Different states have different legal standards on this question. In Alaska, they're broadminded about felons...which is how Republican Senator Ted Stevens could recently run for re-election after he was convicted on seven (count 'em) counts of corruption. But Illinois is way less broad-minded. There, the other day, the tight-lipped legislature not only impeached Governor Blagojevich but barred him from holding public office in the state for the rest of his life. Yet The Blago hasn't yet been convicted of a crime, so must still be presumed innocent. On the federal level, the Constitution holds the door open for felons, providing that the Senate or House look at the circumstances and agree that such a person can serve in office.
This surprising government open-mindedness explains how several of the most notorious Watergate figures, who did time in federal prison after that signature scandal of the 1970s, managed to work up new political careers when they got out. Today John Erlichman and John Dean are respected columnists and commentators. Gordon Liddy is a talk-show host and political strategist, while Charles Colson became a religious-right leader and is showered with humanitarian awards for founding a prison ministry.
But the American public is far more forgiving about corruption or burglary or even DUI's committed by politicians (George Bush's old drunk-driving arrest comes to mind) than they are about statutory sex offenses committed by politicians. I don't know of any politicians who did time for sex with minors, then returned to office afterwards. They usually see their careers sink without a trace like the Titanic.