Pittsburgh’s First Out Candidate

Photo by Walter J. Coddington

When R. G. Forrester, as his name would appear on the ballot but better known as Randy, announced his candidacy for Allegheny County Commissioner on the morning of March 5, 1979 Harvey Milk had already been assassinated the previous year. Fear didn’t stop Randy.

Randy Forrester and his long-time partner Jim Huggins had founded Persad Center in 1972, the second licensed counseling center specifically created to serve the LGBTQ Community in the nation.

In 1974, Allegheny County Commissioners Tom Foerster and William Hunt cut off funding for Persad from the Allegheny County Mental Health program. The county funding made up half of Persad’s annual budget. Commissioner Hunt at the time said, “You don’t hire psychopaths to train professionals who have to deal with psychopaths,” and Commissioner Foerster called it “a waste of money.”

Randy Forrester’s campaign was unique for the time as Pittsburgh’s and Allegheny County’s politics were moving considerably more conservative and he was an unabashed liberal.

Forrester would come in sixth place in the election, receiving 23,125 votes, about 6%. County funding wouldn’t return to Persad until 1996. But Randy Forrester’s contributions to the LGBTQ Community of Pittsburgh continued for many decades after until his passing in 2008.

With another Pittsburgh municipal primary upon us, we present this interview of Forrester from the campaign trail in 1979 as Pittsburgh’s first out candidate.

The following article originally appeared in the May 1979 issue of Gay Life Pittsburgh and is republished here for the first time in over 40 years in it’s entirety as originally published. Some language is dated. Help us preserve Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ history, like this article, by contributing to our GoFundMe.

Exclusive interview with R. G. Forrester, openly gay Commission candidate running what he calls a ‘no lose’ campaign, not writing off victory.

Nothing has been the talk of the town recently much as the candidacy of R.G. Forrester who is running as an openly gay candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for Allegheny County Commissioner. The election takes place on Tuesday, May 15, and since candidate Forrester is the first local candidate to openly identify with the gay lifestyle, we have devoted a great deal of space in this issue to an interview with him. Gay Life’s Mike Crammer interviewed Randy in early April, and the result is a rather candid look at his views, motives for running, and expectations on behalf of himself and the community as a whole. While it would be easy to justify voting for a gay candidate solely on the basis of his sexual orientation and courage in being in the public spotlight, we have attempted to look deeper into the issues and the candidate himself.

Cover of the May 1979 issue of Gay Life Pittsburgh.

GAY LIFE: You could be labeled the “minorities’ candidate.” Is that a fair characterization of your campaign?

R.G. FORRESTER: Yes, I think that is a fair observation. Part of our strategy, as you know, is to focus on that (the minority issues) for two reasons, because we believe the majority of the citizens are a member of one minority group or another; and secondly, any citizen not a member of a minority group is sympathetic to the needs of the minorities.

GL: Is the fact that your last name is similar to that of County Commissioner Thomas Foerster an issue in this campaign?

RGF: There’s certainly an effect from that particular fact. What it will be is a little difficult to predict. . .I think that if all I and my campaign committee wanted to do was create name confusion we’d have put a name on the ballot and be done with it. By actively campaigning, this will help to end the confusion caused by the similarity of the two names.

GL: What are the issues of this campaign?

RGF: We have been directing our energies into two broad areas; firstly, the minority issues. My contention is that the present board of county commissioners has ranged from being insensitive to minority group needs, to being downright hostile. And I think that many voters are tired of this. The other major thrust has been to focus on the bad fiscal management of the county. The current board has really provided us with bad fiscal management. Let me give you some examples: firstly, every year the current commissioners siphon off one half million dollars from Job power funds, which are federal monies, to pay for their own personal patronage empires. The effect is twofold: there is bad fiscal management. I think that is clear, it’s just a rip-off. And secondly, the minority groups its affects the most, the young and the black, this takes money from these people, so that this is downright insensitivity to these political minorities.

Another example—in the spring of 1978 Patricia Miller, an attorney, was hired to work with county senior citizens. Because she was, as a volunteer, president of Women’s Health Service—an abortion clinic—the Democratic commissioners wouldn’t sign her contract. That’s a misuse of the power of the office to discriminate against somebody in employment because of their personal beliefs, and it shows an insensitivity to the needs of women. The third example is the sale of the Grant Street property to Oxford Development Corp. . .a sale totally based on political favoritism. . .there was a lot lost because of political favoritism. The fourth example is the clearly political tactic in 1978 of running a $15 million surplus in order to provide, in this election year, a two-mill tax decrease. This means that next year the surplus will be gone, so that no matter who goes into office in 1980 they will have to raise taxes.

GL: It sounds as if you are disgruntled with the present system of government in Allegheny County. Is that so?

RGF: Yes, and it is for that reason that I voted for the home rule charter. I think that at other levels of local, state and federal government we’ve seen that a single, strong executive works a little better than a triumvirate. But I also think it depends very much on who the other two commissioners are. Then a lot of these problems could be solved. And look at it this way, if I were in fact nominated, that would really shake up the old-time politicians. . .a really clear message would go from me to them, and if elected, that message would be even clearer. My election would have to be viewed as a populist mandate for a government that is sensible, caring, non-political, responsive. Maybe we can summarize it by saying my election would return sanity to county government.

GL: What kind of muscle does a county commissioner have to effect the kind of changes you talk about?

RGF: The county commissioner obviously has authority only within the purview of the county. He can’t override state or federal legislation or regulations. I think the question should be: what does a county commissioner do? First, they make decisions. It’s a yea or nay kind of process. No elected official is going to be expert in all areas in which they serve, so the quality of their decisions will reflect the quality of the advise they get. It’s also important to remember the general head-set, or bias, they each hold. Second, they can use the muscle, that is, the influence of their office when they don’t have direct control. They can go to Harrisburg or Washington and lobby, or sometimes in the private sector.

GL: How can you appeal—or will you appeal—to what seems to be an increasingly conservative majority?

RGF: I think that if I were elected the conservatives would find me in many ways acceptable. The conservative notion that government should infringe as little as possible in the privacy of the individual, this is what I am saying. I would certainly support regulation that removes forced government intervention in the private lives of citizens. Where we would depart is on the broad-based social perspective I have.

GL: How does this figure in the suit you have filed seeking exemption from disclosing financial supporters?

RGF: We’re saying it (the law) is not right in this campaign and in certain others. We’re not asking to overturn the law, but for an exemption based on specific facts, and that is that there are people who will not contribute to this campaign if they know their names will be disclosed. In our specific race in this specific campaign, there is the potential for real danger. There’s got to be a way to prevent campaign abuses and simultaneously permit the average citizen to support a candidate. The right of the vote is private, certainly the right of prevote support should also be private.

GL: What kind of campaign are you running?

RGF: In the initial week’s our first emphasis was on voter registration, particularly within the gay community… also fund raising, by May we will have had a number of organized fund raisers. In late March we began what I call the “stomp,” that is, going out to a wide variety of community groups, endorsement meetings, candidate nights, and so on.

(Forrester detailed a “typical” Saturday in April: first a meeting with the Pittsburgh Coalition for Reproductive Rights, then onto an Allegheny County Labor Council endorsement meeting, ending the day at a 14th Ward Democratic Club fund raiser.)

In the last month of the campaign, we are putting a lot of energy into phone banking, that is, volunteers calling urging people to vote for me.

GL: Does your campaigning in the gay community differ from that in the straight world?

RGF: Not dramatically, really. In fact, in talking with people in the gay community, one of their first fears was that I was running, and wanted them to vote for me, just because I was gay. But rather, it is a relief to them to know that I am running legitimately for county commissioner.

GL: Have you formed coalitions with any county groups?

RGF: No, there are no formal coalitions. As of this date (April 2) we do have endorsements from the Pittsburgh Committee for Human Rights and Allegheny Feminists. We hope to have more.

GL: Financing, how much do you need and how much have you raised?

RGF: The minimum financing is the $25 filing fee. So far we have raised about $3,000, and we’ll have a job to raise a few more thousand by the end. Obviously, this is a comparatively low-budget campaign, and that will hurt us.

GL: How have other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination reacted to your campaign?

RGF: There really hasn’t been any response from them.

GL: Was it your idea to run or were you sought out by others?

RGF: Let me tell you how this all got started. A group of us, all coming either from the gay or feminist political spectrum, and all being cross-sympathetic, got together in early January to talk about the past four years of county government and how it had negatively affected us and what we could do for some positive effect for us in this primary campaign race. The big question was who do we urge our communities to vote for. All this in January before petitions were even filed and nothing looked promising, a choice between bad and worse. In the end, we felt my candidacy would be positive; firstly, because as the first openly gay candidate in any state or county race, access to media coverage would be easier to attain. Second, with that easier access it would be easier to focus on the issues. And, third, I felt that having a reasonable gay candidate running would help many gay people take one more growth step in development of their pride, and certainly from the offers of support, from the feedback I am getting, that is the case. I wouldn’t have run if I didn’t think I’d win something. My belief from the beginnning is that this campaign was a no-lose one. At the best we win some recognition, we win a constituency and a higher level of consciousness from the elected public officials and the public in general. And if I do win, that’s a double win. The more votes, the better the win.

GL: What has been the response of the gay community to your campaign?

RGF: I can best tell you the answer to that with this story. Within a day or two after I announced (my candidacy) to the broad-based media, I got a call from a guy who said, “I’m not sure I have the right person, but are you the Forrester running for county commissioner?’’ I said yes, and he said, “My roommate and I want to help,” then he proceeded to give me his name and address. It’s a simple anecdote, but I didn’t know him from Adam. That’s the kind of thing that has been happening.

GL: Has there been any negative response to your candidacy?

RGF: Nothing dramatic, only one piece of hate mail.

GL: What would you do if you would be confronted with a homophobic reaction to your campaign?

RGF: In part it would depend on how it raised its ugly little head. In the nature of a direct threat, I would use the police. I’m not about to be intimidated. Harrassment? How does anybody handle that? Head on, I’m not about to put up with people who threaten me.

GL: Are you satisfied with the coverage you have been getting in the ‘broad-based” media, as you call it?

RGF: Generally, yes, generally it’s been reasonable. The print media has been fairly fair so far.

GL: How would you handle a homophobic reaction aimed at gays in their homes or businesses?

RGF: Let’s take an example, that’s easier. If city police, say, began to dramatically hassle people who were cruising the streets, I would ask for an investigation by the state attorney general into the possibility of election fraud. If the reaction is against a business, bar, bath, what have you, I would be responsive to the owner’s wishes.

GL: What has impressed you the most about this campaign?

RGF: My initial reaction is how hard it is, the hours it has consumed to do this. On a more human level, the number of people who have been supportive and caring, who have expressed their appreciation for the fact that I am running as an openly gay candidate.

GL: What more are you going to do between now and Election Day, and what will be your Election Day strategies?

RGF: Simple, practical realities dictate I can’t do anymore than I’m already doing. Like other candidates, I have to work, so I will continue to put 30-40 hours a week into active campaigning. Up through the final days we’ll need people to be at the polls and hand out cards. Election day strategies? Well, at least we’ll be putting out people at every polling place we can, but we can’t cover all of them, certainly.

This is just in the proposal stage, but I would like to have a large Election Night party. If we do that, we should have costumes optional, make it like no other, and the costumes would allow those who want to protect their identities from cameras. Sure would be a way to end this phase of the campaign.

GL: When the votes are tallied, how many would it take to make you feel the effort was worthwhile?

RGF: I would feel that we would lose if we got less than 5,000, out of a probable 400,000 votes cast for the county commissioners’ race. One of our strategies will be asking our supporters to “bullet” or “plunk.” This is an often-used technique, particularly among minorities. If you cast only one vote, say for me, then you have effectively subtracted one vote from all other candidates, in effect, doubling your vote. It’s a strategy we’ll be pushing rather hard.

GL: Are you going to win?

RGF: One of the important things to remember is that we are totally aware that we aren’t the front runner, no pun intended, but we’re not at the bottom of the pile, maybe fifth out of 13. Basically, all the other candidates are conservative. We have, this year, a bevy of conservatives, and if we can pull the liberal vote, we’ll move right up the middle. Though we know it’s a uphill battle, we’re not writing off the notion of winning.

The Q Archives and articles like this are made possible by the kind contribution of Tony Molnar-Strejcek, the publisher of Pittsburgh’s Out and by contributions by readers like you.

The Q Archives and articles like this are republished here by the kind contribution of Tony Molnar-Strejcek, the publisher of Pittsburgh’s Out. Maintaining the cultural history of Pittsburgh's LGBTQ Community is made possible by contributions by readers like you.