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THE UNSOPHISTICATESUE LAYBE'S RICHES-TO-RAGS SAGA

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It was in the clubs that her way with repartee first surfaced as a campaign tool. One observer remembers a heckler interrupting her vote-for-me spiel, crying, "Shut up! You were here last week, and you were wearing that same dress!"

Without missing a beat, Laybe shot back, "Yes, and you were drunk then, too!"

Laybe became so active in the clubs that some gay organizers worried about it, for her sake and their own. They were worried that, brave as it was for her to champion their community publicly, the backlash would harm everyone. If a candidate's support of homosexual issues undermines her reputation with other voters, it will cause the next candidate to think twice before becoming allied with gays.

A source says he told Laybe that everyone would understand if she took a more conservative approach to campaigning, but that her response was unqualified: "She said she was perfectly willing to take that gamble." She spent every Friday and Saturday night at the clubs for two months before the election.

The response she received for doing so was practically adoring. "If you have been told all your life that you are going to burn in hell for being gay, have been disowned by your family and kicked out of your apartment, seeing someone of almost untouchable stature asking for your vote basically legitimizes your life," says the source.

Still, there was considerable question whether gay voters could put her in office. Gay activists estimate that perhaps more than 10 percent of District 25's population is gay, but it was a group that had never perceived itself as powerful. "I think when it started out she would have explored any legitimate avenue to get a legitimate vote," says one observer. "I don't think anyone could have expected that it would exert the influence that it did."

She came in first in her district, against everyone's predictions and two Republican candidates, by about 400 votes. "I don't think there's any question in anybody's mind that she got a lot more than 400 votes from the gay community," says a supporter.

And Laybe never questioned it, either. As soon as the election was over she was regularly back in the clubs on weekends, according to observers--this time with updates on the civil rights and AIDS-related legislation that interests gays, and inside information on the mindsets of certain legislators that could help her friends to help with strategy. "I would say that virtually every good thing that has come to the gay community as far as politics goes directly back to Sue Laybe and Bobby Raymond," says an insider.

And yet gay backing wasn't the only reason for victory. She is admired among knowledgeable stumpers in the Democratic party as an expert grassroots campaigner, someone who knows the value of going door-to-door and does it tirelessly. She acknowledges that one-on-one contact put her over the top, and says, "Everything I learned about grassroots campaigning I learned from Mike Crusa."

Crusa and DeConcini took a special interest in Laybe's first campaign, according to insiders, and she repaid them later by lashing out publicly against DeConcini's critics during the Keating scandal. Says one observer of her relationship with Crusa, then and during her days at the legislature, "I have never seen anyone rely on anyone the way Sue relied on Mike Crusa." Once at the legislature, she distinguished herself primarily in terms of constituent services. She sponsored only one major bill, and she didn't appear to be a climber--somebody jockeying for an eventual position in leadership. But insiders say that she involved herself in her constituents' affairs in an exceptional way, visiting them in person or sometimes spending hours with them on the telephone.

"If you are a committee chairman, you have to sit there with banking commissioners and insurance commissioners," says Laybe. "I would much rather work on constituent issues."

She says that she primarily preferred to work through another legislator, the maverick John Kromko, asking him to carry her bills because she felt he had more influence than any first-term backbencher could hope for. It didn't matter to her that he got the credit. "I wasn't there for the power and the glory," she says. "I just wanted to make sure that good laws were passed.

"I was comfortable with my little office on the third floor. I didn't ask for a bigger office after I got reelected, or a private secretary. I just wanted to serve." She wanted it so badly that she pulled off a second election that, once again, no one thought she could win--this time with the help of Joseph Stedino's $25,000. Because District 25 has a nearly even number of Republicans and Democrats, the Republicans had targeted her seat as one that they could surely win back. Observers generally concur that she faced the toughest statewide race in the legislature last year.

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Deborah Laake