Tom Smart, Deseret News
Sen. Scott McCoy will attend the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver as a delegate. In 1996, he attended the Republican Convention as an aide to vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.

Democratic state Sen. Scott McCoy, one of three openly gay members of the Utah Legislature, is coming out of the closet — for the second time.

Only those close to McCoy may know that he used to be a Republican.

And not just someone who often voted for GOP candidates. No, McCoy was a top aide in former GOP vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp's 1996 campaign and a top GOP staffer in the U.S. House in the 1990s.

"I'm going to my second national (political) convention," said McCoy, D-Salt Lake. "But this time it is a Democratic convention." McCoy is one of 29 Utah delegates due to attend the National Democratic Convention in Denver starting Aug. 25.

In 1996, McCoy attended the Republican National Convention in San Diego, where former Sen. Bob Dole was voted the GOP presidential nominee. Dole picked Kemp as his running mate. At that convention, McCoy was not a delegate but was the executive assistant to Kemp's vice presidential co-campaign directors. He was in the thick of national GOP politics.

"It's tough to scrounge up floor credentials, but I did get in to see Kemp's acceptance speech and Dole's convention speech," McCoy recalls.

McCoy also attended the vice presidential debate between Kemp and then-Vice President Al Gore in Florida. "Gore kicked Kemp's butt," recalls McCoy. It was not a good day for McCoy's candidate.

Now, 12 years later, after meeting his life-partner, Mark Barr, in New York City while attending law school, coming out openly as a gay man, moving to Salt Lake City and getting involved in Democratic politics, McCoy will cast a vote for that other party's presidential nominee in a few days.

It has been a long, transitional journey for McCoy — the son of rural Republican, horse-breeding parents, born in a small Missouri town and graduating from high school in Oklahoma. McCoy says that today he feels very comfortable in Utah, in the state Senate and in the Democratic Party.

McCoy says he always considered himself a reasonable Republican, not dogmatic on ideological lines. In fact, McCoy describes his current politics as moderate to conservative on fiscal issues — like spending and taxes. But he said he is more liberal on social issues, especially those involving equality of all people.

Politics grabbed McCoy as a young man. After graduating from a Tulsa, Okla., high-school (his family moved there when McCoy was in the sixth grade), McCoy attended the same small, liberal arts college in Kansas that his mom and dad went to, William Jewell College.

After graduating from there he let his passion take him to the big city, Washington, D.C., where he got a job with a Republican House member, an old fraternity brother of his dad's. McCoy then started graduate school at George Washington University.

Over the next years McCoy advanced in many ways, he said — he learned the nuts and bolts of Congress and lawmaking, switched jobs to another Republican congressman, this time as part of the new "Newt Gingrich majority of 1994," and he finished a master's degree in international affairs.

But he was still a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. By 1996 he had become a staff expert on agriculture issues and made many good political contacts.

Through various friends, in the summer of 1996 he was asked to be a lead staff member on the campaign of the newly picked vice presidential nominee, Jack Kemp. He accepted. "It was exciting. As executive assistant to the two co-campaign directors, I worked mostly out of Washington, organizing all the logistics" of Kemp's intense but short, run. "I may have been a flunky but a pretty high-up flunky."

After the Dole-Kemp ticket went down in defeat, McCoy was kicking around for a job. Because of his knowledge of U.S. farm issues, he was hired as the staff legislative director for a ranking GOP House member, overseeing two House appropriation subcommittees. He helped with the drafting of a huge farm appropriations bill, a signed copy of which still hangs on his wall.

"All that time, in the campaign and working for the appropriations committee, I was in the process of coming out" as a gay man, recalls McCoy. And his political thinking was evolving, as well.

By 1997 he had decided to get out — out of the GOP halls of Congress, out of Washington, out of the life he was living. He got accepted to the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School, part of Yeshiva University — a Manhattan, New York City, college where a large percent of the student body is orthodox Jew.

That's right, a former-Republican, becoming-openly-gay-guy in a conservative religious school in New York City.

"It was pretty intense," McCoy says, adding that it was in New York that he finally came out to his friends and family.

He met Barr and started down a new road, one that would lead him to a civil marriage in Vermont and becoming a civil rights activist in Utah.

Upon graduation from law school, McCoy got a job at a big Wall Street law firm. When he'd had enough of those long hours after a year, he got a clerking job with former Utah Supreme Court Associate Justice Leonard H. Russon. And he and Barr moved to Salt Lake City.

"After law school I was through with the Republican Party, basically because of their social views."

He knew he wanted to get back into politics — Democratic politics. But he kept a low profile because of his judicial post, leaving the court in early 2004 for private law practice.

Staying quiet would change, however, when GOP Utah lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment making marriage just between a man and a woman.

Soon, McCoy quit his lawyering job to become director of "Don't Amend," the official anti-Amendment 3 campaign. In conservative Utah the pro-marriage amendment passed in November 2004. But his "Don't Amend" work got him acquainted with Democrats and noticed by politically active Utahns.

When former Sen. Paula Julander, D-Salt Lake, resigned her seat at the first of the 2005 Legislature because of ill health, McCoy decided at the last minute to stand in a special vote of Senate District 2 delegates.

He survived the first round of voting and narrowly defeated Julander's picked successor, her husband, Rod, by three votes in the second round.

All of a sudden, McCoy, the rural Republican from a small Missouri farming town, was in the Utah Senate as its first openly gay man.

And he has larger political ambitions. McCoy will run for Senate Democratic leadership later this year. "I would never run against (U.S. Democratic Rep.) Jim Matheson. But when Utah gets a fourth (U.S.) House seat, that seat could be pretty Democratic. Who knows what can happen?"

Scott McCoy could just end up back in the U.S. House — but a pretty different fellow from when he left.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com