Thursday, August 09, 2007

Dem Candidates (Most) "Debate" LGBT Issues

At the first-ever televised presidential forum devoted to gay rights issues, Democratic candidates focused largely on reiterating pro-gay stances they have taken throughout the campaign, namely that they would seek to end the "don't ask, don't tell policy" on gays in the military and would back efforts to allow civil unions.

"I think it's a historic moment, not just for the LGBT community but for America," Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) said, using the abbreviation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. "I'm glad that I'm participating."
At the same time, when Obama was asked several times why he would not back same-sex marriage, he shifted from what he called the semantics of the word "marriage" and pledged to ensure that all same-sex couples have the same rights as married couples.

"Semantics may be important to some," he said, but added that if gay couples had equal rights, "then my sense is that's enormous progress."

The forum, organized by the Human Rights Campaign and Logo, a gay-themed television network operated by MTV, underscored the increasing importance of the constituency to the Democratic Party. When a similar forum was held in 2003, one of the top contenders, then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), did not attend, and the event was not televised.

This time, Edwards appeared at the forum, along with Obama and four other Democratic candidates who each spent more than 15 minutes taking questions from a four-person panel that included Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign and singer Melissa Etheridge.

When pressed on gay marriage, Edwards said, "My position on same-sex marriage has not changed." But he then used the question to challenge the Bill Clinton administration on its approach to gay rights -- and by implication to challenge his rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). " 'Don't ask, don't tell' is not just wrong now, it was wrong when it began," Edwards said.

Clinton took a stance similar to Edwards' and Obama's, not backing marriage but saying she wanted gay couples to have equal rights. She also said states were making better progress on gay rights than the federal government.

"I've also been a very strong supporter of letting the states maintain their jurisdiction over marriage," Clinton said.

The event was a love fest for Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), who backs gay marriage. When one panelist Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart, asked Kucinich if there was any issue where he disagreed with the gay rights community, the talkative congressman was left speechless.

"All I can say is keep those contributions coming and you'll have the president you want," he told the audience.

Kucinich and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska) were praised for their support of same-sex marriage. But Obama, who was questioned first by moderators, appeared frustrated by a question that noted that people under 30 back gay marriage at higher rates than others and asked how he could be "a candidate of change when your stance on same-sex marriage is decidedly old school?"

"Oh, come on, now," Obama said. "I mean, look, guys, you know, I mean, we can have this conversation for the duration of the 15 minutes." He added, "If people are interested in my stance on these issues, I've got a track record of working with the LGBT community."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was the only candidate who opposes same-sex marriage to acknowledge the complicated politics of the issue.

"The country isn't there yet on gay marriage," he said. "We have to bring the country along."

Richardson surprised the panelists by responding, "I'm not a scientist," when asked if people choose to be gay or are born gay.

Activists say this year's event was a milestone in showing the Democratic candidates' interest in courting the gay and lesbian vote.

"It firmly establishes us a major constituency in the Democratic Party," said David Mixner, a longtime gay rights activist and Democratic fundraiser. "It's a real validation of our position within the party."

Unlike sessions on Saturday with liberal bloggers at the Yearly Kos convention and on Tuesday with labor union members in Chicago, where the candidates sought to win over influential liberal interest groups, the candidates were not on stage at the same time last night. Instead, each of the Democrats who attended spent more than 15 minutes taking questions separately from the panelists.

Six Democratic candidates appeared, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), who cited scheduling conflicts as his reason for not coming, said he would post answers to the questions presented at the forum on his campaign's Web site. The only other major Democratic contender to skip the event was Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who also cited scheduling problems. Organizers said they invited several Republican presidential candidates to appear as well, but the GOP hopefuls declined.

Already, the candidates from the two parties have diverged sharply in rhetoric on gay rights issues. During a GOP debate earlier this year, none of the candidates said they would change the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and several have strongly argued that marriage should be defined as being between a man and a woman. The Democrats, on the other hand, have courted gay rights supporters more aggressively than ever.

Clinton has criticized the "don't ask, don't tell policy" established during her husband's administration and has offered the line from onetime Republican senator from Arizona and presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater: "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight." In 2003, the future Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), said he did not like the policy but warned it might affect some units adversely to have gays in them.

Edwards released a list of his prominent gay backers on the eve of the forum, as did Obama. Clinton, who had put out a similar list, has had two fundraisers for her gay supporters and planned to attend an event at The Abbey, a well-known gay bar in Los Angeles.

The candidates have not forgotten the complicated politics of gay rights, which may be a popular cause in the Democratic primary but will prove to be a more complicated issue in the general election. Almost a dozen states voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2004, leaving Democrats wondering if those ballot initiatives increased turnout among conservative Republicans. In March, gay rights activists were infuriated when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace called homosexuality "immoral," and Obama and Clinton at first sidestepped questions about whether they disagreed with Pace's sentiments. At the forum, Clinton called this stance a mistake, saying she should have rebuked him earlier.

Chicago Tribune:
The leading Democratic presidential candidates struck a delicate balance Thursday evening between showing commitment to expand the rights of gay people and justifying their opposition to same-sex marriage during the campaign's first-ever televised forum focused on gay issues.

In an evening devoted to sensitive issues of sexuality and social mores, there were also riveting moments of frankness.
Lesbian rock star Melissa Etheridge, one of the questioners, greeted former Sen. John Edwards by bluntly asking him if he was "feeling OK," referring to a former strategist's assertion that Edwards once said he was uncomfortable around gay people.

The former senator from North Carolina responded with nervous laughter on Thursday night, assuring the audience he was comfortable and denying as "wrong" the report of the comment in a recently released book by Bob Shrum, a key adviser to his 2004 presidential campaign.

Perhaps the most personal question of the evening was posed to Sen. Hillary Clinton by Etheridge, who told Clinton that she had felt personally hurt and abandoned by the Clintons after President Bill Clinton's inauguration.

"I remember when your husband was elected," Etheridge said, calling it a "hopeful time" for gays and lesbians. But "in the years that followed, our hearts were broken. We were pushed aside. All those great promises that were made to us were broken."

"What," she asked, "are you going to do to be different than that?"

'Honest effort'
Clinton said she remembered things differently, recalling the political appointments, public remarks and "the ongoing struggle against [conservative Republican House Speaker Newt] Gingrich and the Republican majority."

"We certainly didn't get as much done as I would have liked," Clinton said, "but there was a lot of honest effort."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson waded into the contentious debate over whether homosexuality is innate or a personal choice.

When asked the question, he responded, "It's a choice."

Richardson then went on to say that he doesn't know enough about the science to "categorize" people.

"I'm not a scientist," Richardson said. "I don't see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as human beings ... I don't like to categorize people."

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois turned to the history of the civil rights movement and his biography as the son of a mixed-race couple to counsel patience to gay couples who hope for the legal recognition of marriage.

Like all the Democratic candidates except Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel, who both support gay marriage, Obama supports only civil unions for gay couples. He cited the need to "disentangle" the issue of legal rights for gay couples from what "has historically been the issue of the word marriage, which has religious connotations to some people."

Noting that his parents' interracial marriage would have been illegal in many Southern states at the time of his birth in 1961, he said that he would have advised the civil rights movement at the time not to focus on miscegenation laws, an inflammatory issue then.

"I would have probably said it's less important that we focus on an anti-miscegenation law than we focus on a voting rights law and a non-discrimination and employment law and all the legal rights that are conferred by the state," Obama said.

For her part, Clinton called it a "mistake" that she did not more immediately condemn the recent comments of a top military officer who said that homosexuality is immoral, initially appearing to dodge questions about the remark and angering gay supporters. Obama also drew fire for what some called a weak response in the wake of the comments by Marine Gen. Peter Pace.

Don't ask, don't tell
Clinton also defended her history on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy instituted in the American military during her husband's administration, saying it was an "advance" in its time and that she hasn't worked to repeal it because she didn't want to do so with a Republican Congress and Republican president in charge.

She came out against the policy in 1999, she said, because she realized then that "it wasn't working" and said she now believes military personnel should be judged on their conduct rather than on their status.

Edwards retreated from a prior statement he made citing his Christian faith as a reason for his opposition to same-sex marriage, though he did not offer a new reason for his position.

"I shouldn't have said that," Edwards said.

Richardson was on the ropes in the forum, sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and the Logo channel, asked to defend his record on gay issues, including his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, as well as his use of a Spanish anti-gay epithet on Don Imus' radio show in 2006.

Richardson said he regrets voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, "a cheap political" measure that he said he would work as president to repeal.

He apologized for the slur, which he said was uttered by someone else on the radio show and then repeated by him.

"I meant no harm when I said that," Richardson said. "It's one of those exchanges where I was caught off guard. But I think you should look at my actions, not words."

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