Pete Holmberg with five of his volunteers at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 68th Street. The Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Republican is mounting an underdog challenge to Democratic state Senator Liz Krueger in the Nov. 6 general election. Photo: Courtesy of Holmberg for New York
Or how a diehard Republican became a true-blue Democrat — only to return to the party of his youth 25 years later to take on a liberal-left pillar of the state Senate
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN
The political odyssey of Pete Holmberg began when he was a 13-year-old Chicagoan who volunteered in the losing GOP primary campaign of George H.W. Bush in his race against Ronald Reagan in 1980.
A dyed-in-the wool Republican, he hugely enjoyed the nitty-gritty of the electoral process — canvassing and phone-banking, knocking on doors, licking envelopes, even fetching drinks at the local sweet shop.
It was also around this time that Holmberg first started to realize, as an eighth-grader, that he was gay. By 1992, along with legions of other gays who trod the same path, he had become both a Democrat and a Manhattanite.
“I was 25, and my friends told me, ‘If you want to be relevant in this town, you’ve got to be a Democrat,’” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘Well, if I had wanted to stay irrelevant, I would have stayed in Chicago.’”
Of course, there was another pivotal factor that informed his political calculations: “If I hadn’t been gay, I probably would never have left the Republican Party, to be perfectly honest,” Holmberg said.
But leave it he did. For a quarter-century. He voted for Bill Clinton. Not once, but twice. Then Al Gore, followed by John Kerry. Barack Obama in 2008. Obama again in 2012. And finally, Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Now, at 52, he’s back in the GOP fold. Not only that, he’s seeking to topple Democratic state Senator Liz Krueger, one of the most liberal members of the state Legislature, in the Nov. 6 general election.
Holmberg is challenging the incumbent, who first won election in 2002, in New York’s 28th Senate District, which takes in the Upper East Side, Murray Hill, Turtle Bay, Kips Bay, Tudor City, Flatiron, Union Square and Midtown East including Trump Tower.
A licensed real estate sales agent with Keller Williams NYC, Holmberg, who lives in a rent-stabilized apartment in the East 30s, brands himself a “pro-rent-stabilization Republican.” He’s also worked in corporate communications and luxury hotel management at the New York Palace Hotel and the Plaza hotel.
“I never was an authentic Democrat,” he said, noting his votes for ex-Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg and ex-Gov. George Pataki. “You register as a Democrat, but inside that voting booth, you’re holding your tongue – and secretly voting for a lot of Republicans.”
The concealment of partisan identity, Holmberg contends, is akin in multiple ways to the masking of sexual identity: “If someone is pretending, they’re not going to be that effective, not that engaged and not that happy,” he said.
Referring to closeted gay male friends who are married to women, he added, “Pretending to be something you’re not sexually is not that different from pretending to be something you’re not politically.... I was never that much in the closet sexually — but I was totally in the closet politically.”
And he soon learned that coming out as a proud GOP standard-bearer, in deep-blue Manhattan, during the hyper-polarization of the Trump era, can be especially trying. It started at 3:20 a.m. on the morning after Election Day in 2016.
Shortly after the unexpected triumph of Donald Trump and the Clinton concession, Holmberg took to Facebook, observed that “our democracy has spoken,” and posted a simple “congratulations” to Trump “on your hard-won victory.” He added that “you are my President, and you have my prayers and my support. God bless America!”
Some response was positive. Some was muted. But some was “vicious,” he said. One old friend demanded to know how he could “possibly support someone so morally depraved.” Seconds after hanging up on him, she became the first of many ex-friends to block him on Facebook.
“In order to be declared a good person by a certain group of people in our society today, you have to hate Donald Trump, and I simply reject that,” he said. “I rejected the hate and obstruction that was directed at Obama, and similarly, I reject the hate and obstruction that is directed at Trump.”
The long journey back to his GOP roots had begun, Holmberg said. And he added, “I got a lot less grief for coming out gay than I did for coming out as a Republican, and that’s a common experience for gay conservatives.”
On that score, Krueger is quick to agree: “I actually think that’s a true reflection of the district, which is not particularly homophobic,” she said.
“It’s really not so surprising that he’s gay and running for office,” the senator added, noting that many other gay office-seekers had vied in the political arena in recent years. “What’s more surprising is that he’s a Trump-identified Republican running for office.”
Krueger is an odds-on favorite to retain her seat.
In her last reelection race in 2016, she trounced GOP opponent Michael Zumbluskas by a vote of 101,117 to 33,788. She also boasts a $145,960 campaign treasury, compared to the $5,680 closing balance Holmberg posted as of his most recent state Board of Elections filing.
Underdogs typically go on the attack. But don’t expect either candidate to savage the other. Holmberg first crossed paths with Krueger on First Avenue at 79th Street, and as he tells the story, “I ran into her when I was petitioning on a street corner to take her job, and she was nothing but gracious and respectful to me,” he said.
His first words to his opponent: “Senator Kruger, I’m going to guess that you’re not a registered Republican,” he said.
Krueger confirms the incident. “He keeps being surprised that I’m nice to him, and that I’m nice,” she laughed. “He’s a perfectly pleasant gentleman, we had a very nice conversation, and I agree with him, I’m nice!”