Wake-up call for Trevor Thomas

West Michigan native delivers choice to district

By Jim Larkin

GRAND RAPIDS - Read the political blogs and you can sense the intrigue in the Democratic race for the 3rd District Congressional seat.

Can a young gay man (Trevor Thomas) win a U.S. Rep. position in conservative West Michigan?

Can a candidate (Steven Pestka) opposed to granting women the choice to have an abortion, at a time when Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comments rallied women against attacks on them, win a Democratic nomination against a strongly pro-choice opponent?

And that's just part of the many-faceted Democratic race for the seat now held by Republican Justin Amash, a Libertarian-leaning Tea Party darling whose stances have unsettled many in his own party.

There's the age difference: Thomas is 28 and Pestka 60.

There's the support difference: Pestka has attracted the bulk of the established party support while Thomas (who has managed to nab endorsements from former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Lt. Gov. John D. Cherry) has been bringing in youthful, energetic and new Democratic supporters.

There's the background difference: Pestka is wealthy and lives in a $475,000 home with his wife; they have a 20-year-old son. Thomas's parents both worked in a G.M. Diesel Plant; he lives in an apartment with a woman who is a lifelong friend.

There's the campaigning difference: Pestka relies more on established methods while Thomas is following the President Obama model - lighting up the social media, bringing in newcomers to the political process, energizing youth.

If that's not enough to draw the attention of not only those in the 3rd Congressional District but also the nation and, in particular, LGBT groups, Thomas doesn't know what will.

"People need to wake up," said the energetic 28-year-old. "There is something very exciting happening here."

Center of excitement

At the center of that excitement, without question, is Thomas. His announcement that he would seek Amash's seat proved to be a lightening rod of sorts - igniting the debate over whether a gay man could win a seat held by Republicans since 1976, prompting some to respond by encouraging Pestka to run.

Yet, you won't hear Thomas talking that much about his being gay, although he won't run from the subject either. His talk, as he works tirelessly along the campaign trail, is more likely to focus on mounting student loan debt and solving that crisis so youth don't mortgage their future. He is a strong defender of veterans, having served as communications director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, and the need to better care for those who fought for our freedom. And he blasts Amash for his votes against extending unemployment and the payroll tax extension, and Amash's criticism of the automobile industry bailout.

"He (Thomas) talks about issues that I care about," said Holland Democrat Shannon Garrett, who held a house party fundraiser for Thomas even though his house district does not include Holland. "I like that he pays attention to our veterans, is pro choice and supports LGBT rights and I think it's important, when you find someone who has all the same values that you do, that you support him."

Thomas is far from your stereotypical gay man. He is a NASCAR fan, goes to the Michigan International Speedway, and loves country music, Martina McBride and Reba McEntire. But he has been a fierce defender of some major gay rights issues, having been a national spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, going on the national True Colors tour to drum up support for a federal hate crime bill, and helped develop the communications plan for the successful repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell."

And he talks unabashedly about his own coming out process, about how his parents weren't accepting at first and threatened to withhold his college funding. While neither he nor his parents like to talk about it now, he says it's all about "owning the truth." The present truth is Thomas is very close to his parents and three siblings and refers to his family often while campaigning.

"They've come a long way," Thomas said. "We went through some hard times but we all came through it. And kids need to hear these things so they know they're not alone."

A tireless worker

Those who know Thomas well describe him as tireless and energetic, willing to work 15-hour days on the campaign trail. His day typically includes making fundraising calls in the morning, urging people to give $5, $10, $20 or whatever they can afford, holding campaign meetings, conducting interviews, talking to student groups or other organizations, attending house parties or other fundraisers at night.

A natural story teller, as a broadcast journalism major at Grand Valley State University and former reporter and producer for local station WOOD-TV, other people's stories resonate well with him, said John "Moose" Williamson, 27, one of his campaign workers, and he takes them to heart.

So tears well in Thomas' eyes when he talks about an unemployed man giving "more than he can afford" to his campaign. And he talks about "bawling in a closet" when he heard stories of struggling servicemen while working for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

"I will always keep the letters that I received from some service members," he said.

It's one of the reasons he refers to his campaign as "a campaign for all." Thomas said his supporters include Democrats and Republicans (including former Kent County Republican Chairman Bob Eleveld), gay and straight, from all walks of life. Williamson, in fact, said Thomas is the first gay friend he has had.

"He's an idealist," said Williamson, who is getting involved in politics for the first time. "He wants to dream big but you get the sense he can do it."

Can he do it?

But the question of whether or not Thomas can win remains open for debate.

"It's doubtful," said Bill Ballenger, of Inside Michigan Politics. "He's going to have a problem winning the primary because Steve Pestka is a known commodity over there."

Indeed, Pestka is a former assistant prosecuting attorney, Kent County commissioner, state representative and circuit court judge who has received endorsements from U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, former congressman Mark Schauer, and State Reps. Brandon Dillon, Roy Schmidt and Kate Segal.

"The cornerstone issue," Pestka said, "is putting a congressman in office who is not on the far right."

He said he supports equal rights for everyone and civil unions for LGBT people but not full marriage equality. He wouldn't fully explain his stance on abortion, saying only that his voting record while in office was pro-life and that it would not be an issue in the race. Yet when Pestka and Thomas appeared before Kent County Democrats recently, it was Thomas who was called out for being "pro choice," indicating it may well be an issue.

And, indeed, it is an issue for Garrett and other women supporters, who believe strongly in their right to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies and their lives.

If opposing Democrats, some of whom have urged him to drop out of the race, think they can rattle Thomas by such displays of opposition, they obviously don't know the 28-year-old. He is strong minded and deeply committed to the race, strongly tied to his belief that the district needs to return congressional reins to someone with Gerald Ford-like beliefs of pro-equality, pro-choice and pro moving the country forward instead of miring it in unmoving political ideology. And he is strongly rooted in his Catholic faith.

"I believe strongly in God," he said. "It's what keeps me and the campaign going."

The numbers

Pestka's campaign stated he raised about $130,000 from about 425 supporters in the first quarter of 2012 and also chipped in about $90,000 of his own money.

Thomas reported earning $100,552 from 749 supporters, clearly enough to show he cannot be taken lightly and is a solid contender.

Thomas likes pointing to the difference in the number of supporters, because reaching as many people as possible is a key element in his campaign.

"We only have to raise enough money to let people know they have a choice," Thomas said. "They only have to know Trevor exists."

One of the ways he is doing that is through a strong social media presence. He points with pride to his social media numbers: 566 Facebook Likes compared to 268 for Pestka; 113 weekly Facebook mentions to 44 for Pestka; 1,106 Trevor for Congress Twitter followers to 86 for Pestka; and 6,904 YouTube views, compared to 60 for Pestka.

While Ballenger considers it doubtful that Thomas can win, he does not rule out the possibility - especially, he said, if he gets strong LGBT financial support. Such support, especially early, is likely to be critical given that Pestka has established money, and his own, behind him.

Garrett, who heads SMG Strategies, a political consulting and training firm, also said it's possible if Thomas makes all the right moves.

"It will definitely require Trevor to get ahead of the issues so that everyone can see that Trevor stands for so much more than just gay issues," Gilbert said. "He's going to have to raise his profile and get to know the voters. But Grand Rapids has changed a lot. There's a growing youth and more diverse population.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out."

How to help

* You can find out more about Trevor Thomas and either volunteer or donate to his campaign by going to http://www.trevorforcongress.com.

* You can find out more about Steven Pestka and either volunteer or donate to his campaign by going to http://www.votepestka.com.

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