“I’m gay.” It’s a declaration Tim Carpenter has never made publicly. In his 16 years as state representative, the Milwaukee Democrat from the far South Side has steadfastly refused to discuss his sexuality on the record. “I’m gay.” It’s a chancy admission for any politician, and Carpenter has effectively managed to sidestep the issue, claiming […]

“I’m gay.”

It’s a declaration Tim Carpenter has never made publicly. In his 16 years as state representative, the Milwaukee Democrat from the far South Side has steadfastly refused to discuss his sexuality on the record.

“I’m gay.”

It’s a chancy admission for any politician, and Carpenter has effectively managed to sidestep the issue, claiming that his private life should remain separate from his public life. Judge me not by hearsay and suspicion, he has insisted, but by my political record.

In past election campaigns, opponents from both parties have raised the question of Carpenter’s sexuality, trying to use it against him. The Rev. Ralph Ovadal of Wisconsin Christians United has done his part to fuel the rumor mill, sending flyers to Carpenter’s constituents and baiting him to respond to anti-gay remarks. On the flip side, gay activists have also tried to yank Carpenter out of the closet, identifying him in the gay press as homosexual. Meanwhile, the mainstream media, bound by an unwritten ethical constraint, have danced around the issue, hinting at his homosexuality and couching his comments in read-between-the-lines terms whenever controversy has flared.

But Carpenter hasn’t budged.

More than a year ago, I asked him to talk on the record about Milwaukee’s gay community from the perspective of a gay elected official. He declined, choosing to speak only as an ally of the gay community and not as a member.

This past March, I again asked him to speak about his sexual orientation. In a letter, I invited him to talk frankly about the stormy debate over a resolution commending the Boy Scouts that he had opposed in the state Assembly and a widely circulated e-mail by a Republican colleague that referred to him as “that Queer from the 9th” district.

A month later, I got a phone call. In a late-night voice-mail message, Carpenter said he would take me up on my offer. “The timing is right,” he said, sounding tense but determined.

He was going through a personal transition, he would later explain. For years, he had cared for his mother as she struggled with Parkinson’s and then Alzheimer’s disease, until her death in April 2000. His 75-year-old father was lonely but secure, a recovering alcoholic living close at hand below Carpenter in his two-story duplex. For too long, Carpenter had put his personal life on hold while devoting his time to his political career and to others. It was time to focus on his own needs, he said.

He also expressed a profound frustration serving as a member of the minority party. Once a rising star in the Democratic Party, selected as speaker pro tem in 1993, Carpenter fell from favor when the Republicans gained the majority in 1994. He was relegated to the back row on the Assembly floor and saddled with a reputation as a bitter loser for trying to undermine what he saw as flawed legislation.

With his function as legislative spoiler unsatisfying and his responsibility as his mother’s caretaker over, Carpenter made a decision. He was ready to go public, ready to finally make the declaration: “I’m gay.”

“The main reason I got into politics was to make a change,” he says. “But there’s very little that can be accomplished, given the change of power in the Assembly. The only thing I can do now to bring about change is this” – to come out as gay.

Carpenter is considering a run next year for the state Senate, where presumably, as a majority member, he could have more success in shaping public policy. But since his first run for office in 1984, he has played it close to the vest, minimizing the risks at the polls by masking his sexual identity.

Now, in removing the mask, he will be taking on the unprecedented role as Milwaukee’s first and only openly gay elected official. Uncertain is how Carpenter, in that position, will be regarded by the public – by the voters.

He’s willing to take that risk, no matter the cost.

“It’s this journey I’m on,” he says. “You have to make decisions in your life, and I’ll do whatever I think is better for my own sense of happiness.”

He can be single-mindedly driven. Twice, as a child, he came close to drowning. Years later, in the face of his fear, he learned to scuba-dive.

Whether he runs for the Senate or his Assembly seat, he doesn’t expect to lose.

“I plan on taking it to the streets,” he says. “I’ll tell people, ‘I’m the same nice guy you used to know, there’s no reason to doubt who I am.’ And hopefully, I can make a difference. Hopefully, people, as they get to know me better, will have a better opinion of gays and lesbians.”

Not much tips you off to the fact that Tim Carpenter is gay. Nothing in his Capitol office betrays his secret, no emblematic rainbow flags, no letters of endorsement from any gay rights groups. His car bears no revealing bumper sticker, no pink triangle in the window. Instead, the license plates on his year-old Saturn disclose one of his biggest passions: “B-A-S-E-B-A-L.”

“I’m German-Polish, 6 foot 2 and gay,” he says, downplaying the public’s preoccupation with sexual identity. “To use just one part of me against me is a mistake.”

Carpenter fits few of the gay stereotypes. Indeed, it’s hard to pigeonhole him at all.

Raised on South 20th Place between Howard and Morgan avenues, there is still something very South Side about him. At 41, he’s casual and a little scruffy. With his blond hair swept to the side, curling over his collar and usually in need of a combing, he looks more like a surfer or a car nut (he once owned a reconditioned ’67 Mustang) than a nine-term lawmaker with a master’s degree in public policy and administration.

He walks with a Joe Six-pack lope, head down, legs a bit bowed. Owing to his South Side roots, he is Boy Scout polite and Jack Benny frugal. He clips coupons and sneaks soft drinks and sandwiches into Miller Park. Lanky and athletic, he’s a jock – he used to pitch in a national gay softball league – yet not particularly graceful, possessing a baseball player’s dexterity but lacking a basketball star’s poise. At the Capitol, he’s comfortable in a business suit, and during off-hours, he’s dressed in Levis, a button-down Oxford shirt and deck shoes.

At times, Carpenter is a study in contrasts. Though he’s a lifelong Milwaukee resident, he has traveled to five continents, taking trips (some of them soul-searching “pilgrimages”) to Europe, Australia, China, the former Soviet Union, Brazil and Central America. While he can be reserved and fawningly courteous, he’s also a playful practical joker. (He’s been known to tape a dead fish to the bottom of a legislator’s chair and fill the desk drawer of another with live crickets.) He is also a man with a temper, an anger that has exploded many times in the Assembly. He reads self-improvement books by Deepak Chopra and O, The Oprah Magazine, yet he can call up political tracts from Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky and quote poetry by Emerson or Robert Burns – “Man’s inhumanity to man makes millions mourn.” He won’t use chemicals on his lawn, has never drunk a cup of coffee or smoked a cigarette. Yet he does enjoy a beer from time to time, ever the South Side boy.…

Carpenter grew up in a Catholic home in a blue-collar neighborhood, born the youngest of two children to a mother who taught him tolerance and a father who drank too much.

Audrey Carpenter worked as an operator for the telephone company, a low-paying job held mostly by women and minorities, including a few known lesbians she befriended. Every political season, she earned extra pay as a poll watcher in her largely Democratic ward. She later campaigned for U.S. Sen. Bill Proxmire.

Carpenter’s father, Kenneth, was a factory worker at the Falk Corporation. As a child of the Great Depression, he was forced to quit school at an early age to care for his younger siblings and work the family farm in Iowa. He was a man easily frustrated by life’s disappointments, says his son.

“He made a lot of sacrifices in his life,” says Carpenter. “And he coped by drinking.”

His father was well known in the neighborhood, mostly as a patron of the taverns. His local popularity would one day lay the precinct base for Carpenter’s political career and help shield him against the smear campaigns he would face.

“People could say anything about me that they wanted,” says Carpenter, “but they weren’t believed, because I was Kenny Carpenter’s son.”

His father’s presence at home, though, was lacking. When Carpenter was 4 and his sister was 6, their grandmother moved in. “Grandma was the one who rubbed Vicks on us kids when we were coughing,” says his sister, Gail Guerin. “She was like our mom and Mom was like our dad.”

As the children grew, their father’s alcoholism would sometimes erupt into violence. “When Dad was drinking, it was a battle zone,” Guerin remembers. “You never knew when the volcano was going to go off.”

As the child of an alcoholic father, Carpenter looked constantly for approval and attention. In elementary school, he was a troubled student, acting out as the class clown while pulling down dismal grades. Teachers warned him over and over that he’d never amount to anything if he didn’t change.

“I was a lonely, lost kid,” he admits.

With help of a few concerned teachers, he eventually turned himself around. In junior high, he made the honor roll and was elected to student council. At Pulaski High School, he developed a keen interest in history and government. On a class trip to Washington, D.C., he met U.S. Sen. Bob Kasten and U.S. Rep. Clement Zablocki, the legendary congressman from Milwaukee’s South Side. And in the summer of 1976, when he was 16, he joined the Young Demo-crats and served as a delegate to the State Democratic Convention.

Two years later, after graduating from Pulaski, Carpenter ran for the state Assembly in the Democratic primary, garnering the support of Jerry Kleczka, then a state senator. He lost to the incumbent. But, drawing on the name of his father, he collected nearly 1,200 votes. The campaign cemented his interest in politics.

Meanwhile, something was brewing below the surface. Since high school, he’d had “inklings” that he was different than most teenage boys. His attempts at dating girls never worked out. Instead, he found himself attracted to a boy in his swimming class.

He tried to dismiss his same-sex attractions. He knew the Catholic Church condemned homosexual behavior as sinful. He’d heard the football coach and classmates use the slur “fag.”

“The messages I got through society were that being gay was something that was seen as wrong, an abomination,” he says.

Carpenter moves easily within Milwaukee’s gay circles. On an evening in May, he walks into the M and M Club, a gay bar in the Third Ward, and before he has a chance to sit down, somebody calls his name. He smiles and marches over to greet an old friend. He’s comfortable in the surroundings, unabashedly one of the crowd.

The full realization that he was gay came in his early 20s. Enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he lived at home while working part time as a deliveryman for Federal Express. He was still figuring himself out. Unlike his heterosexual counterparts, his sexuality was kept in check. Once, on a vacation in San Francisco, he stopped at a bar on Castro Street in the city’s gay section. The experience was overwhelming. “For this South Side blond-haired 21 year old, it was too much attention,” he says. “I quickly turned around and left.”

Shy, scared and cautious in the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, Carpenter began hanging out at a Milwaukee gay bar he’d heard about called the Factory.

“I would go and play pool,” he says. “It was a good distraction. If I strayed away from the pool table, I would’ve had to talk to somebody.”

In late 1983, just before leaving on a trip abroad, Carpenter met a group of friends at Your Place, a Milwaukee gay bar. It was the evening of Christmas Day. In the parking lot, he saw someone rush up to a man and punch him in the face, bloodying his lip and nose.

The apparent gay bashing made a deep impression on Carpenter: Being identified as gay carried very real risks.

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“That was a very striking visual image – that day being a Christian holiday – for somebody to be that violent to somebody they didn’t know.”

Returning from overseas, Carpenter was unsure of what to do next in his life. FedEx had offered him a job in Hawaii, but he was reluctant to leave Milwaukee. By the spring of 1984, he was presented with an opportunity that couldn’t be denied. Zablocki had died of a heart attack months earlier and Kleczka had won a special election to fill the congressional seat. State Rep. John Plewa ran for Kleczka’s position in the state Senate, opening up the Assembly seat in Carpenter’s home district.

“It was a clear road,” says Carpenter. “By then, I knew I was gay and I knew the threats of running for public office. But I wanted to take that gamble.… I wanted to become more than I was.”

At 24, Carpenter was the youngest of six candidates in the Democratic primary and one of few without a Polish last name. He ran his campaign on a shoestring budget. His mother worked the phones, his father put up lawn signs and his sister handed out leaflets, while Carpenter took to the sidewalks.

He topped the slate of candidates by 396 votes and ran unopposed in the general election.

“People got to know me because I would go out and knock on doors,” he says. “And I was polite.”

In the Assembly, Carpenter looked to David Clarenbach as his mentor. A progressive Democrat from Madison, Clarenbach had made a name for himself nationally as a gay rights advocate. In 1981, he championed Wisconsin’s “Gay Rights Law,” which prohibited discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. The next year, he sponsored the “Consenting Adults Law,” which decriminalized private sexual conduct between consenting adults.

Clarenbach was gay but remained closeted throughout his political career.

“It was a different era. There were no openly gay elected officials,” remembers Clarenbach, who now lives in Washington, D.C. “Even in the liberal stronghold of Madison, it would have done more than raise eyebrows. It would’ve hampered a person’s electability. Yet I think it’s safe to say that every member of the Legislature and every member of the Capitol press corps knew I was gay.… The general consensus was not to intrude into one’s personal life.”

Carpenter’s own sexual orientation went unquestioned as well during his first term. But in 1986, as he geared up for reelection, he found himself on the defensive in a minor but embarrassing scandal that raised suspicions about his sexuality for the first time.

Carpenter owned a house on South 21st Street, just outside the boundary of his district. A month before the primary, a rumor leaked to the media that Carpenter was living in the house, in violation of state election laws.

Clarenbach, who was in the Democratic leadership at the time, had come to Milwaukee for a few days to campaign for Carpenter. When a reporter from the Milwaukee Sentinel knocked on the door on a rainy morning in August, Carpenter answered. He was shirtless, and in the next room was Clarenbach.

The newspaper focused on the fact that Carpenter bought the home the previous year with a state-assisted mortgage, which required him to live there – outside his legislative district. Carpenter told the press he was unaware of the requirement. He lived with his parents at the family home on 20th Place, he said, and rented out his house or allowed friends to stay there when it was vacant.

The newspaper account included the reporter’s encounter with a shirtless Carpenter, insinuating that he was involved in a relationship with Clarenbach. Carpenter claimed he was caught in a downpour as he rushed to the house to check for water in the basement. He had only removed his shirt to let it dry.

His challenger, Steve Kotecki, seized on the scandal, lambasting the “carpetbagger” Carpenter for enlisting a “gay rights activist” from outside Milwaukee to help in his campaign.

Carpenter sold the house months later, taking the first offer that came in. He maintains today that he was unfairly accused. He never lived in the house, he says, and he and Clarenbach were never romantically involved.

“I still won that race, two to one,” he adds.

But the incident made him skittish, wary of publicity. He feels he was “bushwhacked” by the press, and in the years following has been reluctant to speak to the media at all.

It wouldn’t be the last time he would be compelled to dodge the question of his sexuality.

The year 1996 was a defining year for Carpenter. And a year from hell.

His mother’s Parkinson’s disease was progressing, and with his father still drinking, the responsibility of her care fell to Carpenter. Both parents lived downstairs in the duplex he had bought, and each day, he would help his mother dress, cook her meals, give her medications and drive her to an adult daycare program.

Although he had never uttered the word, his parents knew he was gay, he says. In 1991, after breaking up with a boyfriend in Chicago, he poured out his heart on the phone to his mother and father. “We love you no matter what,” his mother told him, his father listening in on a second phone.

As his personal life became more complicated, Carpenter remained content to live in the closet. It was the path of least resistance.

“I hadn’t been ducking things,” he says. “People knew I was gay, Gov. Thompson knew.… I just figured it really didn’t matter.”

It did, though, to the gay activist group Queer Nation. In January 1996, activist Dan Fons wrote a commentary for a gay newspaper inviting Carpenter and several other Wisconsin politicians to admit their homosexuality.

“That sparked a bit of butting heads with Tim,” recalls Fons. “He was defensive about it and wanted me to drop it.” Instead, Fons repeated the invitation on the local cable TV show “The Queer Program.”

Fons and other activists were impatient with Carpenter. For years, Carpenter had had it both ways: He’d gotten support of the gay community, yet would not openly identify with it.

“Gay people who have chosen to be in the limelight and under public scrutiny have a responsibility to the gay community,” says Fons, who now lives in San Francisco. “We need role models.”

Carpenter would not be goaded. Privately he seethed, but publicly he ignored the outings.

Springtime brought romance to Carpen-ter’s life. On break from the legislative session, he flew to Washington to visit his mentor Clarenbach. Also in Washington at the time was a man named Albert Collins, who worked for an airline and lived in Pittsburgh. A long-distance relationship began.

Collins was out, very out. He hid his sexual orientation from no one. For years before Collins and Carpenter met, Collins had endured anti-gay harassment on the job. Fellow employees had scribbled obscenities on his locker, planted pornography with his possessions, called him a “faggot” to his face. He filed a grievance with his union but without satisfaction. Finally, to get away from the aggravation, he transferred to Los Angeles. But less than a year later, he moved back to Pittsburgh to care for his sick mother – and stand up for who he was.

Carpenter saw the decision as brave. Collins became not only his soul mate but a role model.

In summer, things began spinning out of control. In June, his father was arrested for drunk driving, and suddenly Carpenter was caring for two parents. In August, his relationship with Collins ended. Carpenter was emotional frazzled – juggling the pressures of his political career while caring for his parents and fending off attempts to disclose his homosexuality.

Adding to the pressure, Carpenter faced an opponent in the Democratic primary. James Sanfilippo, a young South Sider who worked in a family craft store, had run against him twice before, first as a Democrat, then as a Republican. He was running again in ’96 as a Democrat.

Perhaps exploiting the tactics of Queer Nation, the Rev. Ovadal and his conservative Wisconsin Christians United began distributing flyers in Carpenter’s district.

“Is he or isn’t he?” read the flyer. “In this day and age when families are falling apart and children are exposed to so many morally decadent influences, how sad it is that the 9th District is represented by a man who apparently believes there is nothing wrong with men sodomizing one another.…”

Sanfilippo was quick to capitalize on the attacks, issuing a press release stating that if Carpenter was gay, “he has obviously been less than honest with his constituents.”

Carpenter denounced the flyers as “mudslinging.” When asked point-blank by a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter whether he was gay, he hedged.

“It’s a private issue. It’s a no comment,” he said.

Carpenter beat Sanfilippo soundly in the primary and again ran unopposed in the general election. Yet even today, he harbors resentment for the events of 1996.

“No one ever took the time to sit down and talk to me,” he says of Fons and Sanfilippo. “No one even gave me a phone call.… I’m sorry if people were disappointed, but I just did not have the ability to come out at the time.”

Carpenter met Ovadal face to face shortly after the primary. Ovadal was picketing the Wisconsin AIDS Walk. “I walked up to him and shook his hand and I said, ‘Hi, I want to introduce myself. I’m Tim Carpenter. I want to thank you for helping reelect me.’ ”

Ovadal backed away, speechless, wiping his hand on his pants.

Carpenter has abandoned Catholicism, he says, yet he follows many of the tenets of organized religion. “I believe in a God, but I feel that some people have tried to steal God away.… God gave us free will. He made me what I am. People should accept me as that.”

Carpenter’s yearly salary as a full-time legislator is $44,233. He claims no additional income. Most of his campaign contributions come as small donations from individuals, though he routinely receives PAC money from unions, healthcare providers and environmental groups. He spent $13,656 on his 2000 reelection, and as of January 2001 had a cash balance of $4,637 in his war chest.

His politics fall in line with traditional Milwaukee liberalism: He favors gun control and light rail, opposes the death penalty and restrictions on abortion. He scores a lifetime record of 98 percent “right” votes from the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO and has won four Clean 16 awards from Environmental Decade, a state coalition of environmental groups. By contrast, the state’s largest business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, gave him only a 33 percent approval rating in the 1999-2000 session.

As hero and friend, he names Milwaukee civil rights leader Lloyd Barbee, the state’s first black legislator. He holds progressive mavericks Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone as political heroes and steps far to the left on some issues: He’s critical of school choice and attacked a bill to provide a tax break to Midwest Express Airlines as “corporate welfare.”

Throughout his legislative tenure, he has been a consistent advocate of benefits to domestic partners and funding to HIV/AIDS programs, sending a signal to the gay community that he can be counted on, while keeping his homosexuality out of the public realm.

“There’s no denying that he probably doesn’t get the recognition that Tammy Baldwin did [while in the Assembly] or Rep. Mark Pocan does now,” says Milwaukee gay activist Patrick Flaherty. Madison Democrats Baldwin and Pocan are both openly gay. “Maybe that speaks to one of the benefits of being out.… But if you’re interested in moving legislation, you’re interested in getting the majority of the ‘yes’ votes. It’s not about being out or not. It’s not a personal cause.”

Doug Nelson, executive director of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, believes Carpenter’s unwillingness to broadcast his homosexuality has served his interests well. “Fifteen years ago, Tim Carpenter may not have been elected if he was an openly gay man, and HIV and AIDS public policy would have been hampered if he was not in the state Legislature.”

From where he sits, Carpenter sees himself as a champion of lost causes, going so far as to quote Jimmy Stewart from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “The only causes worth fighting for are the lost ones.” Madison is no Washington. But Carpenter’s ardor and idealism does bear some resemblance to Jimmy Stewart’s quixotic character. He’s willing to ask questions no one wants to hear, much less answer.

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These days, though, a cynicism has wormed its way into Carpenter’s world. He feels ignored and undercut by the Republican leadership. More and more, he questions the very integrity of the political process.

“To me, it’s the old dichotomy, policy vs. politics,” he says. “But to me, there is no policy. It’s all politics.”

His frustration is expressed through his anger, through what some describe as “temper tantrums” on the Assembly floor. In 1995, in a scene that still causes eyes to roll, Carpenter rushed the speaker’s podium, shouting down Republican leaders after they moved to postpone debate on campaign finance reform. “What is this, Russia?” he hollered, as Rep. Shirley Krug held him back.

Carpenter makes no apologies for his outrage.

“Sometimes the only way you get people’s attention is to do harsh things out of the norm,” he says.

After spending a year as speaker pro tem (the parliamentarian selected by the majority to run Assembly sessions), Carpenter knows the rules and procedures and knows how to muck things up, drawing on that knowledge to delay or derail legislation.

“He’s not a knee-jerk reactionary,” says his friend Rosemary Potter, a former Democratic legislator from the South Side. “He sees patterns in the Legislature that he thinks are wrong and starts rebelling.”

“The role of the minority is often thwarted, and that is one of their best strategies – to slow things down,” adds Assembly Majority Leader Steve “Mickey” Foti of Oconomowoc. “Does it frustrate and upset people in the majority? Of course it does.”

At least one Republican insider is more disapproving. “He has turned so bitter,” says the insider. When the Democrats were in the majority, Carpenter was on the fast track. But when the Republicans took leadership, Carpenter became “a back bencher… and he never got over it.

“He has marginalized himself,” adds the source. “He’s left with nothing to do but bloviate on the floor. It’s kind of a waste. He has skills and is a very personable guy around here. There are persons in his party that get a lot of things done. He is not one of them.… He’s in the ‘cursing the darkness’ business instead of the ‘lighting the candle’ business.

“Look at the Midwest Express bill,” says the Capitol insider. “That is not the fight that the Democrats wanted. Tim picks the wrong issues for them.… He takes them off-message.”

His approach can indeed anger fellow Democrats. “People are questioning whether that’s the most effective way to use his talent,” says one party member. He’s also been somewhat of an isolationist, “self-contained,” as the Democrat put it. He seldom campaigns for other Democrats, choosing instead to center on his own constituency. “And that may be why some others in his party are not holding him in as high esteem as he could be.”

Rep. Peter Bock of Milwaukee, who chairs the Democratic caucus, agrees that Carpenter’s confrontational approach strikes a nerve with some. That approach, in fact, has won him the nickname “Carp” among friends. “He uses his mastery of the legislative process to draw his colleagues into a reasonable discussion on the issues. And not everybody likes that,” says Bock, one of Carpenter’s carpool partners. “It’s not gratuitous, it’s not grandstanding. It’s a sincere commitment to the things that he’s talking about.

“Having been the parliamentarian, he knows when our side is getting screwed,” he adds. “When he senses that we’re not getting treated fairly by the rules, then it really sets him off.”

Yet Carpenter has friends on both sides of the aisle. He and Bock hold Milwaukee Brewers season tickets with Republican Rep. Dan Vrakas of Delafield and Majority Leader Foti.

“One of the sad things about the entire Legislature is that friendships across the aisle are dying out,” says Foti. “People arrive here hating people on the other side of the aisle, thinking they are evil people.… Tim and I very seldom agree on the issues, but we personally get along real well.”

Several legislators, though, declined to comment about Carpenter, including, most tellingly, Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former Minority Leader Shirley Krug. Krug was thrown over by the Democratic caucus in May, and while Carpenter did not engineer the coup that installed Spencer Black as the new leader, he says he was ready for a change. During the caucus meeting that sealed Krug’s fate, Carpenter urged his fellow Democrats “to have the balls to speak honestly.”

Carpenter admits he’s not always pleased with the course of the Democratic caucus, again criticizing those who put politics above policy. But if he has a nemesis, it is Republican Jensen, whom he calls “the Newt Gingrich of Wisconsin politics.”

He blames the speaker for a lack of leadership, for pitting Republicans against Demo-crats, conservatives against liberals rather than working toward the common good. He faults Jensen for wooing the gay group the Log Cabin Republicans while drumming up support among the Republican caucus for a Boy Scout resolution that many saw as anti-gay.

“Scott is very intelligent,” says Carpenter. “But his downfall is going to be: ‘Win at all costs.’ ”

In the midst of the Boy Scout debate, Rep. Michael Huebsch, a Republican from West Salem, sent an e-mail to his colleagues, rebuking the Democrats for their outcry against the resolution. “Where was the civility when the Queer from the 9th rushed the podium in 1995?” read Huebsch’s e-mail. The e-mail was leaked, Huebsch apologized and Carpenter accepted the apology.

The e-mail, in a crass way, pushed Carpenter as close as ever to coming out of the closet. In a rambling and emotional speech on the Assembly floor, he said the “queer” label and statements three years ago by former Packer Reggie White were words of bigotry and hatred to “the group that I run with.” He asked Jensen to invite the mother of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student murdered in Wyoming in 1998, to speak to the Legislature, something of an olive branch for the Huebsch e-mail and speech by White. To this day, Carpenter says, he has not received a reply from Jensen.

While some might see Carpenter as self-righteous, Rich Eggleston of the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities suggests that he functions as the “conscience” of the state Assembly.

“Tim Carpenter has been successful in bringing his issues to the forefront and making people aware of them, even if his issues don’t get passed,” says Eggleston, who was a Capitol reporter with the Associated Press until 1996. “If you can fault him for anything, he wants the system to work too much and he is not very tolerant of its failings. That speaks of his high ideals, and people with high ideals are not treated well by the institution. But he’s a survivor.”

For all of the partisan squabbling, for all of the speculation about his homosexuality, Carpenter has never faced a serious threat at the polls. In eight reelections, he has not lost a single ward within his district.

Carpenter lives on a shady lane near Jackson Park. His neighborhood is distinctively South Side: aluminum awnings over the windows of the houses, lawn ornaments of granite angels and shiny metallic balls on pedestals. Inside the fenced backyard of Carpenter’s duplex is a bird feeder and picnic table. Upstairs is a small balcony, a solitary chair facing the alley. On his block, cars bear license plates that proclaim his neighbors’ Christian faith: “GODSBTY” (“God’s Beauty”) and a bumper sticker that declares “Got Jesus.”

His district is a Democratic stronghold, stretching from Bay View to Greenfield, from the airport to Hispanic neighborhoods on the near South Side, encompassing Alverno College, St. Luke’s Medical Center, Serb Hall and a wide swatch of manufacturing plants.

Carpenter’s pride is his responsiveness to his constituents’ concerns. He holds town hall meetings at least four times a year and diligently sends out mailings and state highway maps.

And he is a zealous doorknocker. He estimates that he has knocked on 50,000 doors in his political career.

“I’m a door-to-door animal,” he says to me one afternoon in May as he works a neighborhood off of 35th Street. I nearly have to jog alongside him to keep up as he dashes down the sidewalk (never cutting across the manicured lawns), checking off names on his list, then hopping up the front steps two at a time of a double-story home to ring the doorbell.

He is paying homage to his constituents, he explains, spending time in their turf. “I can meet people and instantly connect,” even with those posting NRA decals in their windows or pro-life stickers on their cars.

This face-to-face campaigning is good politics. But it’s also a shrewd preemptive strategy. “It inoculates me against any negative campaigning,” he says.

Carpenter knocks on the door of Dorothy Helmenstine, a longtime supporter. She eyes me on the sidewalk, and, after a brief introduction, he mentions that he’s agreed to speak on the record about “the gay issue.”

Helmenstine is a bit surprised, but clearly she has been aware of Carpenter’s homosexuality for some time.

“Why do you think it took you so long to do this?” she asks.

“I think a lot of it is timing,” he tells her. “I valued my privacy. And I didn’t want to be identified only as gay.” It’s the irony of ironies, he says, that the most private element of his life should become such a public topic.

“We’ve never really pried into your lifestyle,” Helmenstine says of herself and her husband. “We assumed, but it didn’t matter. Quite frankly, I’m glad you decided to go this route. I really don’t think you’re going to find it an issue with people.”

It’s hard to say how an openly gay Carpenter will be received by voters. The declaration, predicts Pocan, the gay Madison Democrat, won’t win Carpenter any votes – he already had the gay vote in his district. But it won’t damage his reputation either.

“The first thing people think of about politicians is, they lie,” says Pocan. “So if you’re willing to be open and honest about every aspect of your life, overall there’s a net positive.”

Ovadal agrees – somewhat. “I would say at least he’s being honest. It doesn’t make him moral, but it makes him honest.” He vows to step up his campaign against Carpenter to “make sure that a lot of people in his district know what their representative is involved in.”

Neil Albrecht, executive director of Milwaukee’s LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) Community Center, believes Carpenter’s coming out will transcend state politics and send a powerful message to the city’s gay community. “While that message may seem fairly simplistic, it has a profound impact on how people see themselves, on their own self-worth and their own identities,” says Albrecht.

Carpenter’s mentor, Clarenbach, thinks an openly gay Carpenter will be lifted to a unique level of prominence in Milwaukee.

“I’ve discussed this with him at great length,” he says. “He has felt the dilemma and the contradiction and has wanted to do the right thing. I think he might pay a modest price in coming out. But it also will relieve a great deal of pressure.”

As this article reached completion, Carpen-ter already seemed to be moving into new waters. In a series of interviews, I saw him gradually loosening up, as if a burden had been removed from his shoulders. He was thinking beyond his decision, concentrating on the future, on his new role as activist.

At Pridefest in early June, his mood was buoyant. He was in his realm, among friends, among his kind. In a panel discussion about gays and lesbians in government, he spoke with a candid enthusiasm about the impact gays and lesbians can make in public life, encouraging people in the audience to run for public office, to take a seat at the table.

“The more diverse members we have in government, the stronger a democracy we are,” he said. “Just by being, I think we can accomplish a lot.”

Kurt Chandler is a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine.