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COMMENTARY: Roys' email signals identity politics

By   /   September 14, 2011  /   4 Comments

By Kevin Binversie
Well, that didn’t take long.
Just a day after announcing the start of her campaign for the Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District, Democratic state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys of Madison sent an email to her Assembly colleagues urging them to join a new “Equality Caucus" to deal with gay and lesbian issues.

Normally, such news wouldn’t cause much of a stir in Democratic circles, but this one did. Why?

Because Roys — who says she is happily married to a man and with two young step-daughters — isn’t just running against another Democrat in her primary. She’s taking on one of the most well-known, openly gay state politicians, Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison, while trying to replace Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Baldwin is seeking the open United States Senate seat of the retiring Herb Kohl.
Roys claims what looks like pandering is just coincidental, and was urged to create the caucus under the advice of former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton. That may be, but it's hard not to describe such a move as anything other than a transparently, blatant attempt at identity politics — a claim Roys openly disputed.
Identity politics has been part of the ethos of America since the beginning of the republic. It is, after all, the basis of interest group politics. But it didn’t truly take on its current form until the 1960s and 1970s. Since that time, activists, consultants and politicians have exploited the potential benefit for themselves and their agendas if they could be seen as an active supporter of an easily identifiable group. Groups tended to be categorized along lines of race, age, creed, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
While both sides of the political spectrum have been known to practice identity politics to empower their respective bases, it has found its most natural home in the modern progressive movement. There, politicians appear to be measured not by how much they have accomplished for an interest group, but by how much they can claim they relate to one.
It makes for great political fodder during a general election. In a primary, it doesn’t help so much.
Nothing in recent political memory highlighted the schisms identity politics lead to more than the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. There, you had one identity politics group, women, represented by Hillary Clinton, versus another identity politics group, blacks, represented in Barack Obama. While in the end Democrats were successful in their quest to retake the White House, it is hard to argue it was not a bumpy road of a primary all the way to the national convention in Denver. What the email sent by Roys last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, actually communicates is we may well be on our way to a local equivalent in the race for the 2nd Congressional District.
University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin predicts the Democratic primary could turn into a competition for the party's base.
"No matter what the issues, a Dem primary in the 2nd CD will be competitive and drive the candidates to compete for the party base on whatever issues they choose," Franklin said. "With similar candidates ideologically, that can make for some interesting ways of differentiating themselves."
With little chance of Republicans taking the seat and each Democratic candidate holding practically identical views on the major issues, will we soon be able to say the race has degenerated into a contest about who can pander to which identity politics group the most?
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at [email protected]


  • Republicans, including this blog’s editors, should try listening to Rudy Giuliani, who suggests that they should stay out of people’s bedrooms.

    I’m not gay, and my wife of 55 years is pleased to hear that, and I’m pleased that my four kids chose the opposite sex to marry.

    But I do believe in equal protection under the law, even for those whose lifestyles differ from mine. I wish we could put this issue behind us and deal with this nation’s real problems.

  • Charie

    I thought this article was about identity politics. There was no discussion of the merits or non-merits of being gay. And how did Republicans enter into it? Kelda Roys is the one getting into gender politics.

    Jack, you have to get to an arthropod and have that knee-jerk response taken care of.

  • Allan


    Why not read what Kevin wrote so you can make a knowledgable comment. Or maybe you just can’t read? Maybe you are just a typical Democrat, someone writes a good piece about identiy politics, and you immediately have to blame Republicans for something? Surprized you didn’t blame Pres. Bush.

  • Don’t be naive. When the article starts out highlighting the “openly-gay” Pocan and Baldwin, it IS a gay issue. Yes he went on to other subjects that cloud the issue, but the message is clear. Please get my point: let’s discuss real citizen issues!