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Dems Mine GLBT Vote
by Bob Roehr

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WASHINGTON—Seven Democratic candidates for president made their pitch for gay votes at a mid-day forum on July 15 sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and broadcast on C-SPAN. Rev. Al Sharpton's comments drew perhaps the most enthusiastic applause, while other commitments kept Senators John Edwards (North Carolina) and Bob Graham (Florida) from participating.

HRC's Elizabeth Birch opened the gathering by noting 'the historic moment ... the monumental paradigm shift' taking place in America in which 'their gay sons and daughters are worthy of being treated with dignity and as whole human beings.'

Turning to the Lawrence decision, she said, 'In a profound and most eloquent opinion, the highest court in the land has concluded that we as a people, but also as families, are worthy of constitutional protection. It has broken a dam of bias and no doubt will usher in a new era of greater fairness and equity as new laws are passed to address so many parts of our lives that remain unaddressed.'

Under the format, each candidate was allotted 10 minutes, time for brief opening and closing statements sandwiched around a grilling by the persistent ABC News veteran Sam Donaldson. They spoke in the order in which they accepted HRC's invitation.

This forum is 'an extraordinary statement about the journey traveled' by the gay community said Sen. John Kerry (Massachusetts). He claimed 'the broadest, strongest, and longest record of support' for community concerns among the candidates running.

It began with his support of gay Vietnam vets in 1971; he cosponsored gay civil-rights legislation in 1985, 'before Ellen DeGeneres, before Will & Grace'; he was the only Senator up for reelection to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996, and 'to go to the floor of the United States Senate and say this was gay bashing and beyond the dignity of the Senate.' Kerry also pointed to his work in AIDS, including a proposal made two and a half years ago addressing the epidemic in Africa. His campaign treasurer is an openly gay man.

When Donaldson pressed him on support for civil unions but not same-sex marriage, Kerry said, 'It is important to do what we can do,' which is achieve access to the benefits of marriage. 'I don't believe it is a distinction [between the two words] that makes a difference.'

'But if in your mind there is no distinction' pressed Donaldson, then why have two categories?

Kerry said that Americans for cultural and historical reasons view marriage as between men and women.

When pressed on gays in the military, the Vietnam veteran said he was one of only four Senators to testify against 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT).' 'I thought that every single American ought to be able to serve.'

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) offered a generic record of support on gay issues. He supports gay marriage and pledged that as President he would lead the fight to repeal DOMA and block a constitutional amendment on marriage. He was equally blunt with the military, dismissing views of the generals. 'Rebellion in the military!' he huffed, 'Oh, I don't see that happening.'

'We cannot have states making different rules with respect to basic civil rights,' he said, supporting federal intervention on the marriage issue. Kucinich was willing to appoint gays and lesbians to the Supreme Court 'as long as they are willing to uphold Roe v. Wade' on abortion rights.

'I know I may not look like any president you have seen before,' began former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun. She emphasized her 20-year record of support on gay issues at both the state and federal levels. She wants to 'liberate America from the prejudice and fear of which [the right wing] have hijacked our country.'

Braun traced her support for gay marriage back to that of her aunt, who married a white man at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states. 'It is constitutionally impermissible to deny a person the right to marry who they want to,' but as a practical matter, she said, 'States issue marriage licenses' and the matter needs to be resolved at that level.

She called DADT 'a mistake, an embarrassment, it should not have happened. The issue is one of conduct.' In her closing statement Braun said, 'It is time to take the 'men only' sign off the White House door.'

Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, received probably the most sustained applause on being introduced. He touted having signed the first same-sex civil unions bill in the nation and speaking in opposition to DOMA when it was proposed. He believes the law is unconstitutional because marriage is not a federal issue, 'and I'll do everything in my power to repeal it.' Donaldson pressed on whether Dean thought that the marriages of gay couples in Canada ought to be recognized in the U.S. 'The federal government cannot tell a state that they have to have marriage or civil unions, but ... those citizens are entitled to the same rights,' even if they are called something different.

'Why is the word [marriage] a hang up?' asked Donaldson. Dean tied marriage to religion, even when Donaldson used the example of marriage licenses issued by justices of the peace.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (Connecticut) virtually ignored gay issues in his opening statement. When Donaldson pressed on support of marriage or civil unions, Lieberman said he would 'leave the question to the states.' He defended marriage's 'special status in our culture, or society, or history.' He is working at the federal level 'to protect [gays] from unfair treatment' by 'reviewing one by one' the laws and regulations affecting the thousand plus benefits associated with marriage.

Lieberman opposed DADT, and he 'absolutely' would include gays and lesbians among his nominations. 'My administration will reflect the full face of America, the rainbow.'

'Many people observe the struggle [for human rights], I have been a participant in the struggle,' said Rev. Al Sharpton. To him, the inference of the question on gay marriage 'is that gays and lesbians are not human beings that can make decisions like any other human being. We must stop this separation of gays and lesbians from other Americans ... . Even with those that are liberal on the issue, there is an understanding that there is something that is different and less than human about you.'

'If people respect you, it is not about gays and lesbians having the right to marry, it is about human beings having the right to marry who they choose.' Sharpton said, 'It's like saying, we give blacks, or whites, or Latinos the right to shack up but not marry.' The audience roared their approval.

Sharpton called it 'a human-rights question' that 'church leaders ought to lead.' He would 'use the bully pulpit' of the White House to help to change the political atmosphere. He asked the question, 'Do you support the Latino right to vote, or do you support everyone's right to vote? You must change the language of the debate.'

'Women didn't get the right to vote by osmosis. Black people didn't get the right to vote by internal lobbying in Washington,' he said. Sharpton praised activists as 'the reason we are where we are now.'

Donaldson asked how he would end discrimination in the military. Sharpton said, by putting people in authority to carry out the will of the President. 'Anyone guilty of discrimination ought to be fired. They are violating the law.'

'This election is [about] where we are going as a Party,' said Sharpton. He took on the notion that he can't win by pointing out that eight of the primary candidates are going to lose. He urged them to turn the party around and 'stop imitating Republicans.' Rep. Richard Gephardt (Missouri) was given the unenviable task of following next. His approach was a folksy schmoozing of the host HRC; a recitation of his support for pro-gay legislation in the face of 'a hostile Republican Party'; and a story of his recently lesbian daughter Chrissy. Gephardt justified his support of civil unions as 'something that can be accomplished'; he does not support marriage.

And what about gay couples who marry in Canada, should those marriages be recognized? 'I suppose it should be a policy of reciprocity,' said Gephardt.

He closed by speaking on job creation, tax cuts, and 'the moral issue' of healthcare for every American. He used the example of a person with HIV who does not have health insurance.

Bob Witeck, a communications consultant who is heavily involved in Democratic politics, thought the forum was great. His one reservation is that the format, where the speakers came and went on their own, did not offer much of an opportunity for the candidates to listen to and learn from each other or the audience.

Political director Winnie Stachelberg said that HRC 'may or may not' endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, 'but certainly not before early next year.' The endorsement process is that the staff evaluates candidates' positions and viability and makes a recommendation to the Board of Directors, which makes any formal endorsements.

The Web cast of the forum is available:

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