Thursday, April 19, 2007

Presidential Candidates Seek Gay Endorsements

Even though the first caucuses and primaries are nearly a year away, the 2008 presidential campaign is in full swing and LGBT voters and organizations have already begun to weigh in.

Candidates from both sides of the aisle have raised a record $157 million in the first quarter. Many have created elaborate operations in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early contest states in this election cycle.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign announced April 18 that openly lesbian New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former Democratic National Committee LGBT caucus chair Jeff Soref and more than two dozen other elected officials, activists and celebrities had endorsed her bid for the White House. Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards issued a similar statement earlier this month to announce Democratic fundraiser David Mixner and other LGBT activists had endorsed his campaign.

Both Clinton and Edwards, along with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama and other leading Democratic candidates, remain opposed to marriage for same-sex couples.

National Stonewall Democrats Communications Director John Marble conceded most candidates are not "perfect on this issue at all" but added his organization remains confident their positions will evolve over time. "We now expect them to be open to evolving their positions on marriage," he said.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan and other gay commentators have already criticized the Human Rights Campaign and other national LGBT advocacy organizations for their perceived support of candidates who do not support marriage for same-sex couples. National Black Justice Coalition Executive Director H. Alexander Robinson, on the other hand, said the candidates themselves need to better explain their position on this issue and others, such as hate crimes, which concern voters.

He further added he believes the candidates generally fail to understand the complexity of the issues LGBT people routinely face."The political analysis that gay and lesbian issues present a liability has meant that in many cases the candidates have failed to have a sort of fundamental view of what the challenges of discrimination are," he said. "Leadership is not just about casting the right vote or taking the right position. It is about going to a place where people may not share their opinion and really making the case for the positions [they] support."

HRC Executive Director Joe Solmonese dismissed Sullivan’s criticisms and was quick to point out his organization has yet to endorse any candidate. He said marriage remains one of several issues voters will examine during the campaign. And Solmonese added the HRC will carefully examine each candidate’s positions before it makes any decisions.

"Our job is to evaluate each race and make a decision based on the best interest of the community and understanding the whole host of issues the community expects us to advance," he said as he dismissed Sullivan’s criticisms. "It’s the whole package and a variety of different factors."

Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors was more pragmatic. His organization refused to endorse U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s re-election campaign last year after she failed to support marriage for gay and lesbian couples. Lawmakers in Sacramento continue to debate a bill which would allow same-sex couples to marry but Kors remained confident his organization will not support any presidential hopeful who did not fully support their LGBT constituents. "Equality California does not endorse any candidate who opposes our mission," he said.

Marriage remains an important issue for voters in other states as well. Alabamans overwhelmingly passed a state constitutional amendment to define marriage last June while voters in South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and three other states supported similar initiatives in November.

Equality Alabama Board Chair Howard Bayless said LGBT voters in his state will continue to examine each candidate’s position on marriage. But he also believes voters will expect them to outline their positions in support of hate-crimes legislation and non-discrimination statutes before they head to the polls.

"This election is not about one or two issues," Bayless told EDGE in a recent interview from Birmingham. "It is about a myriad of issues. People will look at the candidate who is going to reach out to them the most."

This analysis remains consistent with the position many national LGBT organizations took following the mid-term elections. They saw the election results, in particular the Democratic take-over of the House and the Senate, as an opportunity to advance the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Local Law Enforcement and Enhancement Act and the repeal of the ban on gays serving openly in the military that had stalled during the previously Republican controlled Congress.

Solmonese added that the results, including the defeat of anti-LGBT incumbent U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and other social conservatives, were an indication voters had begun to reject the rhetoric that had determined the outcome of previous elections. He expects this trend will continue into 2008. "We continue to have fewer and fewer people buying into their rhetoric," Solmonese said.

Log Cabin Republican Executive Director Patrick Sammon agreed. He insisted his party will maintain the White House only if the GOP returns to what he described as its "core principles" and appeals to a much broader base."

Republicans need to nominate a candidate who can appeal to voters in the middle," Sammon said. "They [gay and lesbian Republicans] are looking for a candidate who will focus on uniting Republicans and not dividing Republicans."

It remains to be seen whether marriage and other issues will play a prominent role in the 2008 election as they did in previous campaigns. But most activists and political pundits agree the war could ultimately determine its outcome. "The war in Iraq will be a huge issue," Sammon said.

Robinson of the National Black Justice Coalition echoed these sentiments. He asserted many NBJC members and supporters remain concerned the Bush administration continues to fund the war at the expense of efforts to combat HIV and AIDS, public health and other social and educational initiatives. "Issues of national concern--the war in Iraq and the sense many people have that the country is headed in the wrong direction--are themes I’ve heard time and time again," Robinson said.

Marble added that Americans will continue to scrutinize events in the civil-war-torn nation as the election draws closer."The current situation has LGBT voters largely focused on issues that aren’t LGBT specific," he said. "This cuts across the electorate regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

Solmonese hesitated to say whether he feels the war would overshadow LGBT issues during the presidential campaign. He added, however, voters will almost certainly continue to demand the White House change its policy in Iraq.

"The war in Iraq and the administration’s role in the war defined the [2006] election," Solmonese said. "If there are no significant changes in the Middle East, the war will continue to dominate the agenda."

The Bush administration announced earlier this year it would increase the number of troops in Iraq. This deployment remains highly unpopular among members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and among the American people. Observers remain doubtful the GOP will maintain the White House in 2008 if this policy remains in place."

LGBT voters, like the majority of voters in the country, are ready to see an end to the hostile positions and the incompetent Bush administration," Kors predicted.

Bayless of Equality Alabama agreed. "The electorate will be revved up for a change," he said. "Republicans will have a difficult time overcoming the last eight years."

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