Two LGBTQ candidates are running against each other in Alabama’s Democratic primary Tuesday, creating a rift in the party.
Brit Blalock, a nonbinary and queer woman who uses both “she” and “they” pronouns, announced last year that she would run for the Alabama House of Representatives, representing District 54, which includes parts of downtown and east Birmingham. The seat is currently held by Rep. Neil Rafferty, the state’s only LGBTQ lawmaker, who has fought anti-LGBTQ legislation in Alabama for the past two years.
“After helping 20 Democratic women run for office over the last five years, I was prepared for many of the challenges I’d face for daring to run against a white, cisgender, male incumbent,” Blalock said of Rafferty in a Facebook post earlier this month. But she said she wasn’t prepared for some of the obstacles. She said that cars have followed her while she canvassed and that the Alabama Democratic Party’s vice chair had discouraged some donors from supporting her campaign.
Blalock said she asked Rafferty to meet her at a bar before she officially announced her candidacy, so she could tell him in person.
“I wanted it to make things clear to him that I wasn’t running to run against him, that these are things I’ve been mulling for many years, and this felt like the right time for me,” she told NBC News.
But she said Rafferty didn’t seem to understand “and went so far as to call me running ‘wrong,’ which I’m not sure how it’s wrong, because this is how primaries work, is it not?” Blalock said.
Rafferty didn’t directly address Blalock’s claim but said in an emailed statement that he would never discourage an LGBTQ person from running for office and noted that the queer community is still underrepresented in elected office nationwide.
“When I spoke to them both before and after they announced their run, I did not discourage their candidacy,” Rafferty, a former Marine who worked for the nonprofit group Birmingham AIDS Outreach, said of Blalock. “I would never discourage an LGBTQ person from running for office, because it is antithetical to my core beliefs and vision for the future of our movement. Initially, I hoped the redistricting process would allow for us to run in separate districts so that we would have a chance to double LGBTQ representation in the state Legislature. When I did learn they would be running in the same district as me, I made it clear I would run a clean race, which I have.”
Blalock also said that she received pushback from at least two prominent leaders in the state’s Democratic Party. Just before announcing her candidacy in June, she spoke to Patricia Todd, the party’s vice chair, who held the District 54 seat before Rafferty and was the first out LGBTQ person elected to public office in the state.
Blalock said Todd told her that “by running, I was ‘eating my own.’”
“I disagreed with her, and I told her I think it’s a wonderful thing for LGBTQ youth to see multiple queer people running for office,” Blalock said.
Todd said she did discourage Blalock from running against Rafferty and recommended that she run for a different position, such as school board.
“I guess I’m old school in that when you have a candidate in office running for re-election that is a good Democrat, progressive thinker, has been successful, passed some bills, stands up for our community, why would we want to change horses mid race?” Todd said. “I think she’s a great candidate. I think that we need more women to run, but I wish people would be considerate of running against an incumbent that is good on our issues, and she even admits she didn’t disagree with him on policy issues.”
Blalock also said that Todd called some of Blalock’s donors and encouraged them to stop supporting the newcomer.
Todd said she did call some of Blalock’s donors, because some of them are Todd’s friends, so she asked them why they were supporting Blalock and whether they were unhappy with Rafferty.
“But I never said, ‘You shouldn’t vote for her,’ or anything,” Todd said. “I wouldn’t do that.”
Blalock said it was surprising that Todd would “come out so hard against the first nonbinary person to run for state office” when the country “is at a pivotal time when it comes to issues of gender identity.”
Blalock also pointed to comments made last year by state Rep. Anthony Daniels, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, as evidence that Democratic Party leaders “would do whatever they could to protect Neil” Rafferty.
Daniels told the Alabama Daily News in June, shortly after Blalock entered the race, that he would strongly back Rafferty for re-election.
“Rep. Rafferty has been a wonderful and strong member of our caucus,” Daniels said. “He is very deeply committed to his work on criminal justice, social justice, education, equal rights for all people, civil rights and just his ability in representing all the democratic principles is second to none.”
He added, “It is without a doubt that he is a member that we want to be in Montgomery, and we are going to do everything we can to make certain that he comes back to Montgomery.”
Blalock confirmed that she didn’t disagree with Rafferty on key policy issues, but she said her style of governing would be different, “namely in being more prominent and more visible and more frequently in contact with voters." She said if she won, she would be the only state official with more than a decade of community organizing and activism experience, including experience advocating for LGBTQ rights and abortion access.
Todd praised Rafferty for his advocacy against bills targeting transgender people, including an Alabama bill that would ban gender-affirming medical care for minors under 19. Ahead of a House vote on the bill in April, Rafferty made an impassioned final plea to Republicans. He said the measure went against Republican ideals like small government, and that legislators would “put a target on children’s backs.”
“Just don’t you dare call me a friend after this,” Rafferty said to the bill’s supporters, shortly before it passed and was later signed by the governor. It has since been temporarily blocked by a judge pending litigation.
But Blalock said Rafferty’s strategy of trying to appeal to Republicans hasn’t worked.
“My approach to representation is different from Representative Rafferty’s in that I think that the most progressive voice in the Legislature should be a very loud and very visible one all of the time,” Blalock said. “We’ve seen this proven over and over again that befriending the Republicans across the board is not preventing bad policy from being passed.”
As more LGBTQ candidates run for office, more of them will be running against each other, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which is dedicated to increasing the number of openly LGBTQ elected officials across the U.S. and endorsed Rafferty last year.
Albert Fujii, a spokesperson for the organization, said there are more than a dozen primaries this year with two or more LGBTQ people running. He said the total number of out LGBTQ people running so far, at 950, looks as if it could exceed 2020’s record of 1,006.
“Now, there are multiple LGBTQ people in one primary, and our position is that’s a really good thing,” he said. “The point of primaries is to ensure that the strongest candidate — the one with the best vision and best policy ideas — makes it through to the general. In terms of our movement and increasing LGBTQ representation, which is our core mission, this is actually a really good thing for our community.”
In order for LGBTQ Americans to reach equitable representation, more than 28,000 additional LGBTQ representatives would have to be elected to local, state and federal office, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s 2021 Out for America report.