National Stonewall Democrats expressed 'deep concern' over the announcement that former Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. will become chair of the Democratic Leadership Council ( DLC ) . Other politically connected gay Democrats did not share that concern.
The DLC supports policy issues that pull the Democratic Party toward the political mainstream. Bill Clinton used it as a forum to advance his presidential ambitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Ford, 36, is the scion of one of the most politically prominent African-American families in Tennessee. He represented a Memphis district in Congress for 10 years and ran a close but ultimately unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate in 2006.
Most within the LGBT community have assumed that because he is African-American and so young, Ford would be supportive of the community's issues. At one point that was the case—Ford had a 100 rating from the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) as recently as the 107th Congress.
But over the last two sessions of Congress, Ford's rating from HRC declined to 44, then to 25. It is highly unusual for someone with a 100 rating to fall so low. He twice voted for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, while most members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed it. That all came as the Representative prepared for a run for the Senate.
'Congressman Ford has demonstrated a lack of leadership and judgment on family issues that causes our members great concern,' said Joanne Wyrick, Stonewall's executive director.
'His willingness to lightly amend the U.S. Constitution and exploit gay families for political gain should alarm Democrats across the country,' she added. 'The Democratic Leadership Council is in need of leadership that supports and affirms all American families.'
Ken Sherrill would cut Ford some slack. The professor of political science and Manhattan Democratic activist notes that 80 percent of voters in Tennessee voted to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. 'What do you expect a candidate for the Senate in Tennessee to do? Can you imagine a Democratic nominee in Tennessee with a better record on LGBT issues than Ford's?
'We also know that LGBT rights are a very low priority for the DLC, and that lots of them believe that we [ gays ] cost Democrats the presidency in 2004,' Sherrill said.
Chicago political consultant Michael Bauer came to know Ford when he ran for the Senate, and even raised some money for the candidate. While disappointed with Ford's vote on the marriage amendment, he says, 'I think it is important to differentiate between those who oppose any government recognition of same-sex relationships and those who are open to an ongoing dialogue on this issue.'
Ford told Bauer that his support for the marriage amendment sprang from his religious beliefs. But over the course of those meetings, he came to understand the need for legal protections for same-sex relationships, and to support civil unions.
'Rather than demonize Ford, I suggest that we maintain a dialogue with him and use logic and persuasion as to why he should eventually support same-sex marriage,' Bauer said. Bauer also notes that none of the likely Democratic nominees for president in 2008 are likely to be supporters of gay marriage. If that issue is used as a litmus test, then gays would have to sit out the presidential election.
'If all we as a community are going to do is talk to elected officials who already agree with us and if we actually lack the ability or don't have the patience or willingness to educate elected officials and move them to a better voting record, then our ability to make progress is going to be much, much more dificult,' says Bauer.