Political Switcher: Republican Since Childhood, Voting for Obama

Mark Patrosso re-registering. (Photo courtesy Mark Patrosso)

By Lisa Morehouse

We don’t need to tell you the American electorate is polarized these days. You just have to tune in to any call-in show or even make an injudicious casual remark at Thanksgiving dinner to realize how personal our political identities are and how emotional discussing the issues and values surrounding them can be. So we decided it would be interesting to ask one Republican and one Democrat why they did what is unthinkable to so many: switch parties. Two portraits of political discontent…

Republican to voting for Obama below, and Democrat to Republican here.

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The first thing you should know about Mark Patrosso is that he was very involved in the Republican Party for a very long time. At just 9-years-old, he watched the entire 1964 Republican Convention when Barry Goldwater was nominated — even though his parents weren’t interested in politics.

If anything, Patrosso should have been a Democratic kid. He spent his childhood in East Detroit, a working-class Democratic suburb of the Motor City. In junior high, he says other kids probably thought he was a little weird when he volunteered to fill a display case with information on presidential candidate Richard Nixon. “I remember going into the local Nixon headquarters, picking up buttons, reading profiles,” Patrosso recalls.

Patrosso was just crazy for politics. “I probably actually read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in junior high and high school, or referred back just to understand what they really meant,” he says. “I’m not sure that my peers even cared.”

Rockefeller Republicans in particular spoke to Patrosso. They were socially moderate and open to compromise, but also fiscally conservative, concerned with efficient governance, and strong on national defense. He spoke up for these values even as he entered college at the left-leaning University of Michigan in the 1970s. Looking back, he says, he thinks he knows why protecting minority opinion was so important to him.

“Probably, subconsciously, I knew I was gay. I wasn’t the same as the other guys,” he says. “I guess I had a particular sensitivity in my long-term political views in making sure I was out there, that I was going to protect who I was, being a little different.”

In 1980 Patrosso moved to California to work for Lockheed. He found Santa Clara County Republicans shared his views, and he met members of the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay and lesbian Republicans. He felt like he was finally meeting his people.

“I’m gay and in the Republican Party, and here I am all of a sudden meeting a bunch of people who are openly gay and in the Republican Party!” he remembers. “Okay, there’s more of me here.”  Soon, Patrosso founded the Silicon Valley branch of Log Cabin Republicans, and he even became a delegate for the state party.

Patrosso’s belief in the Republican Party remained rock solid for decades but, he admits, small fissures began to surface. They started with the rise of the religious right. “There wasn’t any room for compromise,” Patrosso says, “and they made it their business to outvote us and get the most extreme views in the party platform or positions on ballot initiatives.”

During George W. Bush’s presidency, Patrosso felt distanced from a Republican Party he believed was moving away from its fundamental beliefs. “They weren’t managing the budget, and they were being reckless and arrogant on the world stage,” he says. “That’s when I started questioning: ‘Really, is this a Republican Party I want to continue to be a part of?’”

The reason Patrosso gravitated toward politics at all has a lot to do with a simple belief — that the best politicians serve the people. After the 2008 election, when he thought congressional Republicans cared less about running the government than about unseating Obama, Patrosso was horrified.

“They were just interested in saying ‘no,’” he says. “That’s not being a good public servant. That, probably more than anything else, started to rip away the last shreds of my support for the Republican Party and their leadership today.”

For two years, Patrosso wrestled with his feeling about the party. Then two pivotal things occurred. First, Mitt Romney gave a speech that Patrosso felt belittled global warming concerns. Second, Senate candidate Todd Akin delivered his now-infamous line about ‘legitimate rape.’ Petrosso decided he could no longer countenance being a registered Republican.

“My whole existence as a gay Republican with my Democratic gay friends has been to justify why I’m still a Republican, and I ran out of arguments,” he says. “If I can’t argue for the party that I belong to, then I have no right to be in that party. I have to be true to myself.” On his 57th birthday, the last day of the Republican National Convention, Patrosso changed his registration from Republican to ‘decline-to-state.’ He brought a friend along to take pictures of this major life event.

On Election Day, when Mark Patrosso walks into the voting booth, he’ll be choosing a Democrat for president for the first time. He says he has no regrets, because even though he built so much of his identity and community around being a Republican, Patrosso says he can’t sacrifice his values for a political party.

Now, the other side of the coin… Click here for our portrait of a Democrat who has gone Republican.

  • jules older

    Great piece of reportage.

  • Karen G

    This was a great report. I really appreciate how Mark Patrosso evolved as his long-time party evolved. I am sorry his party has moved to such an extreme, but applaud Mark for being true to himself and not buying into it. Thank you KQED for this wonderful series (with perspectives from both sides)

  • Gustavus Adolphus

    While I liked the report, I wished you would not have used a gay person as an example of the party switcher. Nothing against Patrosso, his sexual preference, or his clear articulation of the evolution of the Republican party away from him. His political renaissance is completely rational, but unfortunately just reinforces right-wing Republicans views that liberals are either gay, atheist, socialist, unemployed, etc, etc, etc. Wish you would have interviewed a straight, wealthy, conservative who got tired of hosing the 47% and came to realize there was more to life than just “rational self interest.” This would have given right-wingers less fodder to rationalize their backwards views. Whether or not you consider homophobia reprehensible (as I do) conservatives really believe that homosexuality is somehow immoral and will dismiss Patrosso accordingly.