Don Guardian, a former Atlantic City mayor and an assemblyman-elect for the 2nd District (Courtesy of Guardian campaign)
The election of Don Guardian to the state Assembly will give New Jersey its first openly gay legislator in more than three years.
Guardian, a former Atlantic City mayor, defeated Assemblyman John Armato (D-Atlantic) and Atlantic County Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick to bring LGBT representation back to the capitol, buoyed by Republican enthusiasm that gave the party more seats in the lower chamber than it has held since 2003.
Guardian’s win also ended New Jersey’s record as one of just six states without LGBT representation at the state level, according to the Victory Fund, a PAC devoted to boosting the ranks of openly gay election officials. New Jersey was the only blue state in the country without an out legislator.
“Fifty years ago, gay and lesbian were something that was hidden. You didn’t go out, and if you did go out, you had a book that told you where it was safe to have a meal or to go to a club or to even stay at a hotel that was gay-friendly. That has changed a lot,” he said, adding there was more to be done.
Only two other openly gay members have ever held legislative seats in New Jersey. Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, a former assemblyman, become the first after he came out in 2006, and former Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen) became the second openly gay member after his 2012 swearing-in. Guardian will be the state’s first openly gay Republican legislator when he’s sworn in on Jan. 11.
The state has never had an openly gay senator.
Human Rights Campaign ranks New Jersey as one of the friendliest in the nation for the LGBT community, citing anti-discrimination laws, a ban on using “gay panic” defenses, an option for second-parent adoption for same-sex couples, and more. Still, the gay community finds itself in the crosshairs on occasion.
This year, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli railed against a recent law that requires schools to incorporate lessons on LGBT individuals and their contributions into school curriculums, claiming it would require educators to teach sodomy to middle schoolers.
Having LGBT representation could tamp down on that sort of rhetoric while bolstering the prospects of pro-LGBT legislation.
“The best part of having someone that’s LGBTQ in the legislature is just that — the legislation has a face and it’s no longer an ethereal thing or an idea,” Eustace said. “It gets to be reality for the rest of the legislators on both sides of the aisle.”
Gay members have often led the charge on issues affecting the LGBT community. Though it was passed after they left the Assembly, Eustace and Gusciora sponsored the LGBT curriculum bill, and the Trenton mayor sponsored bills that would have legalized same-sex marriage in the state. Same-sex marriages were made legal after a 2013 judicial ruling.
The former members believe having a gay Republican in the Legislature will further advance LGBT causes, saying his presence might help end lingering stigma around LGBT people among some conservatives.
“Guardian has a great track record in Atlantic City, and he’s socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and I think it’s going to be a refreshing change for the Republican caucus,” said Gusciora, a Democrat.
The assemblyman-elect said he intends to focus foremost on fiscal issues important to constituents in his Atlantic County-based legislative district, with attention also paid to public safety, LGBT issues, and diversifying Atlantic City’s gambling-dependent economy.
His priorities include lowering New Jersey’s ever-rising cost of living and using sales tax revenues to boost state school aid to allow for smaller property tax burdens. Unlike revenue from the state income tax, which is constitutionally dedicated to property-tax relief, sales tax revenue goes into the general fund.
Though New Jersey has made strides in legislating on LGBT issues in recent years — including discrimination protections for the transgender community and elderly LGBT individuals — Eustace said more action is needed to help LGBT teens and seniors.
It’s a mantle Guardian appears to be ready to take up.
“We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go, so until we have equality for everyone across the board — and that includes everyone in the LGBT community — there’s work to be done,” he said.
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