Prizm News / February 1, 2018 / By Bob Vitale

An openly gay Columbus dad is challenging Ohio’s highest-ranking member of Congress. He’s not as long a longshot as you might think.

By Bob Vitale

A year ago at this time, the dining room table probably looked a lot like the rest of Rick Neal’s house in the German Village neighborhood of Columbus: the dominion of 6- and 8-year-old daughters. Right now, though, three 20-somethings have set up shop, MacBooks open, smartphones charging and lunch microwaving in the kitchen.

It’s not just headquarters for Amoret and Sophie these days. It’s also campaign central for the man who hopes to topple one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress, the GOP’s political point man who’s in charge of recruiting U.S. House candidates, raising hundreds of millions to support their campaigns and getting enough of them elected to keep his party in control of the federal government.

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But if 2018 produces the anti-Trump wave that many political analysts are predicting, this bare-bones, long-shot operation just might have a shot.

And come Nov. 6, Ohio would have its first openly gay member of Congress.

“It’s all hands on deck,” says Neal, a Democrat who’s making his first run for political office by challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers, a four-term incumbent and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Neal is among a new generation of progressive candidates in Ohio and around the country who were horrified by the election of Donald Trump and jolted into action by his first year in office. They’re political outsiders for the most part—record numbers are women, and record numbers identify as members of the LGBTQ community—whose experience and skills were gained in business, healthcare, the military and other fields.

Their hopes—and odds—have been buoyed by 2017 election victories over Trump loyalists in Virginia and Alabama. Neal, a stay-at-home dad and former international aid worker announced his candidacy in August after trying to recruit others to make a run.

“Everyone has to do what they can, and this is what I can do,” he says. Neal is running in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District, an area that stretches across 12 counties from Athens and Ohio University west to Wilmington and beyond. It includes a small portion of Columbus and suburbs such as Hilliard, Upper Arlington, Grove City and Grandview Heights.

Neal talks about good-paying jobs and affordable health care. He favors a $15-per-hour minimum wage—”it’s the push that we need to get to a livable wage”—and opposes efforts by Stivers and congressional Republicans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. He praises Ohio’s efforts under Republican Gov. John Kasich to address the opioid epidemic but says the federal government needs to be a fully engaged partner in the effort.

But beyond the specifics of Medicare expansion and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, rural broadband and net neutrality, equal pay for women and legislation to protect young immigrants from deportation (he’s for all of them), Neal says he would bring even greater change to Congress.

As a public-health worker who specialized in water and sanitation projects, Neal lived and worked in Cambodia, Azerbaijan, Burundi, Afghanistan, Jordan and the Congo between 1997 and 2004. He uses his last assignment in eastern Congo as a metaphor.

“Over the course of the year, things would happen out in the countryside. One armed group would attack another. All the sudden you’d have a group of women and kids coming into town, and staff would come in one morning and say, ‘OK, there’s 200 or 300 people coming into town, what are we going to do?’”

“There was never a time when you were like, ‘Wow, that agency over there, they’re religious so we’re not working with them.’ Or, ‘Well, those people who are coming in, they’re part of that ethnic group that killed people last month so we’re not going to help them.’ Never anything like that. It’s based on need, and it’s based on what you can do.”

“That’s the orientation I bring,” Neal says. “It’s a very collaborative process.”

Stivers, according to Neal, is part of the problem.

“Congress is the issue,” he says. “Trump is going to be Trump. The White House is going to do whatever it’s going to do. Congress has to play its constitutional role of trying to check him, and wow, they are not doing that.”

Stivers enjoys a reputation as a moderate Republican, but Neal says he votes with and supports some of the GOP’s most extreme and boisterous conservatives.

Stivers has donated money to candidates such as Greg Gianforte of Montana, who pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter in May 2017, and failed U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama. He asked for his money back after Moore was accused of sexual assault and preying on underage girls in the 1970s.

The website fivethirtyeight.com, which has tracked congressional votes since Trump took office, says Stivers has agreed with the president’s positions on legislation 98 percent of the time.

And during his first three terms in Congress, Stivers never took a position supported by the Human Rights Campaign, the national LGBTQ civil rights organization. He opposed attempts to prohibit discrimination by federal contractors, require anti-bullying policies in public schools, repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, and move federal legislation that would discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

In a letter posted online last year, Stivers told a constituent that despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, he thinks states should be able to regulate marriage “and other social and family matters” as they wish.

“The votes tell the story,” Neal says.

The votes in previous congressional elections tell a story, too. Stivers has won re-election three times with more than 60 percent of the vote, and Trump carried the district by 15 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Rick Neal starts off as a decided underdog,” says Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political science professor emeritus.

But DailyKos has been tracking elections around the country since Trump’s inauguration and says results have swung an average of 14 points in Democrats’ favor compared to each district’s vote for president in 2016.

After the Alabama vote, the Cook Political Report in Washington changed its assessment of Stivers’ 2018 re-election race from “solid Republican” to “likely Republican,” a small shift but significant enough to garner attention in the nation’s capital.

Neal gained even more attention with a January campaign video in which he made pancakes for his daughters (husband Tom Grote insists he makes them better), shared his email address on the screen (rickneal@rickneal.com) and promised to answer every note he received (he got a lot of new pancake recipes).

By the end of the month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added the district to its Majority Makers list of races that it deems winnable and deserving of party help.

“Rick has certain advantages,” Asher says. “He’s not a politician. He’s not part of the establishment. He’s not part of the ‘swamp.’ Being an outsider is something he has to tout as being an advantage at this point in our political history.”

So as he accuses Stivers of turning his back on the district, Neal promises to serve only three terms.

He already has made an issue of Stivers’ campaign fundraising from corporate interests and his support of right-wing candidates across the country. And he fully expects, if the race gets close, that he’ll be derided as a “Pelosi Democrat” and subjected to subtle and maybe not-so-subtle references to his sexual orientation.

But the election, Neal says, will come down to local issues decided by local voters.

“I think people here in the 15th deserve a full-time congressman,” he says. “They just want someone who’s going to get stuff done.”

Bob Vitale
Bob Vitale is the editor of Prizm. A Toledo native and graduate of Toledo Public Schools, he has worked as a local government and politics reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, as a Washington correspondent for Thomson Newspapers and as editor-in-chief for Outlook Ohio. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from Ball State University and a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield. Contact: BobVitale@prizmnews.com