Note: This is the second part of a series about Gabriel Jose Carrera, a leader of the Tea Party. Click here to see the first part.
More than a decade before Gabe Carrera became a leader in the Fort Lauderdale Tea Party and began rubbing shoulders with the likes of Florida Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, he ran a campaign of his own for state house in his native Connecticut.
And it was one of the ugliest races Hartford has ever seen.
Carrera, who was an evangelical missionary at the time who also worked in his father's furniture store. took aim at Democratic state Rep. Evelyn Mantilla in 1998. He kicked it off by holding a protest in Hartford denouncing diversity posters hung at City Hall claiming they advocated homosexuality. His protest drew 100 people and was covered by the Hartford Courant.
It was almost as if Carrera was trying to create his own version of the Tea Party in Hartford about 11 years before its time.
"This movement does not have a name," the paper quoted Carrera saying. "We have to show the city we are united. We have to come together in unity for Jesus Christ."
Carrera made no secret why he was challenging Mantilla. It was because she was a lesbian. Carrera, who ran as an Independent, held prayer vigils outside Mantilla campaign events and claimed that she would promote homosexuality in Hartford schools.
"We need to put morality back into the law," he said the day of the rally. "We need to put morals back into our schools."
The rally was in July 1998. Carrera kept his promise and ran against Mantilla, blatantly running on the basis that her sexuality was sinful and that she represented a moral breakdown to society. Mantilla had just come out the year before and was running for her first reelection.
"He ran a campaign based strictly on my sexual orientation," recalls Mantilla, who is now communications director at the health department in Hartford. "He had a van with loudspeakers that repeated all these tired messages, letting people know that I was gay, letting people know he thought I was going to bring it into the schools, that it was a sin, that I would recruit people, untrue stuff.
"When it all started, the first thing I always said was that I protect his right to say these things and I protect his religious rights. But it was very hard, it was very hurtful, and very difficult to go through. It was hard to see my name with all these inflammatory messages."
A brutal murder that occurred across the country would play a pivotal role in the campaign. On October 12, 1998, a 21-year-old student named
was Matthew Shepard and he was robbed, beaten, tortured, pistol-whipped, and left tied to a fence to die by two men. The reason for the crime: Shepard was gay.
The case drew the nation's attention -- and it's collective horror. But the notoriety of the Shepard case didn't slow Carrera down. He kept running a campaign that a growing number of critics were calling hateful. Then he put out a poster of his own that led to a rallying cry against him that soon became deafening.
The poster were dominated by the words, "No Metas La Pata," which translates to "don't mess up" or "don't put your foot in it." The problem was that "pata," which Carrera emphasized with bold print, doubles as a homosexual slur, specifically against gay women.
Adding to the controversy was the fact that Carrera allegedly placed a bulls-eye target on the poster, which some took as inappropriate at the time.
The poster, which Carrera put up around town and on the Internet, incited Hartford's gay community to action, with the Sheppard murder as the backdrop. Groups organized a press conference on the steps of City Hall to denounce Carrera. Again the Courant reported on the controversy.
"We don't have to go to Wyoming for gay bashing, it's in the 4th District in the city of Hartford," one prominent gay leader, Richard Stillson, told the newspaper. "Rep. Mantilla is being bashed by her opponent and it has to stop. Her opponent is deliberately misrepresenting her. As we saw in Wyoming, hatred fosters hatred and that is not a model that children need to be learning about."
In that article, Carrera denied knowing that the word "pata" was a slur, a charge that wasn't believed by anyone. When I asked him about the bulls-eye, Carrera denied there was one, though the detail was included in an uncorrected newspaper article. "That wasn't me," he said of the bulls-eye. "That was somebody else."
Carrera blames the media for much of the controversy though he points out that he only had a GED education at the time and has since become a lawyer so he probably would have "articulated" things differently.
"I made some comments indicating that she married her female campaign manager and is this the type of person you want to have in office," Carrera says. "The media jumped on it because they wanted her to win and they didn't want the evil right wing to win."
Carrera has said in the past he regretted the race though, and it was clear by his avoidance of the subject that he's not proud of it. He points out that even then he came out against the Shepard murder as well.
"I condemned that, I that that was horrible," he recalls. "But they went on the airwaves and made flyers and handed out flyers at doors saying this guy was hate speech, you know, 'the hate speech of Mr. Carrera.' It was sort of like Sarah Palin, you know."
So what happened at the polls? Well, Carrera was routed, pulling only 12 percent of the vote while Mantilla got the other 88 (to be fair, it was a heavily Democratic district). He says he's still proud of his campaign, saying he had only $3,000 while Mantilla had about $100,000.
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I asked Carrera if he still felt the same way about gay people.
"It's a lifestyle that is legal in the United States and I try to separate the sin from the sinner," he said. "To me, acccording the Bible, it's a sin and God isn't happy with it. But do I go out there like the Westboro Church and picket? No. I have a lot of friends who are homosexual. I have more friends on the left than I do on the right, did you know that?"
Mantilla, who is still married to that same former campaign manager, Babette Mantilla, says she was surprised to learn that Carrera had resurfaced in Fort Lauderdale with the Tea Party.
"I just didn't think that the kind of campaign he ran -- it was so over the top -- that it was the type of activity that people wouldn't buy at the polls," she said. "I hope if he's using some of the same tactics now, I would hope people don't buy them now either."