"The Republican Unity Coalition ( RUC ) is about building bridges. It is about creating a gay-straight alliance within the Republican Party. It is about making being gay or lesbian a non-issue in the Republican Party. It is about helping President Bush succeed as a uniter," said Charles Francis, chairman of the new group.
Francis is a friend of George W. Bush who was instrumental in bringing together a dozen gay Republicans to meet with then governor and candidate Bush in April 2000 to discuss gay concerns. They have become known as the Austin 12.
The openly gay public affairs consultant likely will play a role similar to that David Mixner played in the Clinton administration, perhaps more so, due to his closer personal ties and Bush's premium on loyalty.
"After our meeting with Governor Bush [ in April ] , a reporter shouted a question from the back of the room: Hey Governor, what do you say to conservative Republicans about your meeting with gays?" Francis recounted. The Governor replied, "I want conservative Republicans to know that I judge people based on their heart and character, and that is what this whole campaign is about."
The Jan. 19 breakfast for the RUC, part of the inaugural calendar, kicked off what may come to be seen as a political milestone in the evolution of both gay and Republican politics. The 300-plus invitees in the room and the honorary host committee, both gay and straight, included some very impressive political firepower. The talk was frank, optimistic, and above all, pragmatic.
"The Republican National Convention in 1992 spoke of divisiveness and cultural wars. I was appalled," said Rebecca Maestri. She worked on the staffs of New York Sen. Al D'Amato and Florida Sen. Connie Mack. She was one of the "Austin 12" and left that meeting "with a lasting impression" that a Bush administration would be about "unifying people, all people, regardless of whom they loved."
Alan Simpson, now retired after 18 years as senator from Wyoming, was the genial master of ceremonies. He spoke of having known Vice President Dick Cheney for more than 35 years, and of having watched his lesbian daughter Mary grow up to be "one of the most remarkable women." He shared the "terrible anguish" of Matthew Shepard's murder, of speaking at the vigil for Shepard at the Capitol and his eagerness to join this coalition effort.
David Catania, the dynamic young gay Republican member of the D.C. City Council showered praise all around, and then issued a warning that the remainder of his speech "will be controversial, because I am going to tell you that at this point, the Republican Party's treatment of gays and lesbians is at best unacceptable, and at worst distasteful."
He reminded the audience that the Republican Party "championed, drafted, and ratified" the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that established equal protection under the law for all Americans.
Catania read a section of the 14th Amendment and then anti-gay excepts from the Republican Party platform. He called the latter "junk." "Our party today puts language in its platform that is in fact incompatible with who we are as a party. And that must stop." He urged the party to reclaim its roots.
THE PRO SPEAKS
"Politics is a game of addition, it is not a game of subtraction," said keynote speaker Tom Davis, who represents the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. in Congress. He chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee ( NRCC ) for the last two years and will continue to do so for the next two.
With the coolness of the political wonk that he is, and only the slightest hint of boasting, Davis laid out how, "against great odds, we defied the pundits" in the last election to keep control of the House in Republican hands. Those results won the moderate respect and IOUs from his party colleagues across the political spectrum.
"Republican strategy, whether conservative or moderate, depended for their success on low voter turnout models, but we can no longer count on that expectation," he said. "With the bully pulpit of the presidency, we have an opportunity to talk to and reach groups that traditionally agree with us on some issues …but for one reason or another have not been able to pull that lever."
"Getting more gays and lesbians to vote Republican should be an easier part of that voter matrix [ for building majorities ] than getting people of color," Davis said. He pointed to exit poll trend lines that showed Bush gaining 25 percent of the vote of self-identified gay vote in 2000 while congressional Republican candidates got 35 percent of that vote.
He thought that much of the reason why Republicans did not do better with the gay community is that the party has been reactive rather than pro-active on issues of importance to the community. "The fact is, when it comes to this sort of legislation, the only policy solutions seem to be liberal Democratic solutions."
Davis believes that groups such as the Republican Unity Coalition can help develop policies and legislation "in keeping with our agenda of limited government and free enterprise" that meet the needs of the gay community in a pro-active manner.
The way Davis explained it, that is the only way the Republican Party can hope to keep its political majority. It is this type of pure pragmatism that is likely to carry the day with his colleague who have yet to be swayed by arguments of justice and equality. It may eventually lead to his becoming Speaker of the House.
Last spring, tension ran high between the Bush campaign and Log Cabin Republicans. Those seemed to have dissipated by the national convention in July, and Log Cabin ran about a half million dollars in pro-Bush ads in the fall. There also were reports of bad blood between Log Cabin's executive director Rich Tafel and Charles Francis. So perhaps RUC was Francis' way of getting back at Tafel, by creating another gay Republican organization.
Such speculation was quashed at the RUC breakfast where the watchword was unity. All of the players were reading from the same script, saying that the two organizations had different functions and would complement each other.
From the podium, Tafel called the event "a turning point, a new day in gay and lesbian politics" and for the Republican Party. He praised Davis as the first head of the NRCC to invite Log Cabin to their monthly meetings. "I am convinced that his inclusive outlook is the reason why we maintained the House."
Tafel said, when there were "bumps in the road during the presidential campaign, Congressman Davis personally went to then Governor Bush and said, we both have to work together." Tafel called for maintaining policy advances made by gays under the Clinton administration and for the appointment of openly gay and lesbian people in key positions in the Bush administration.
Congressman Davis' talk could not have been given two or three years ago, said Simpson.
He called it something that is "really, really" important, "you can hear the polar ice caps crack."