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A painful coming-of-age.

The Human Rights Campaign endorsed GOP senator Al D'Amato and caused a firestorm

The long, bitter Senate race in New York is mercifully over. The ferocious mudslinging, remarkable even in a state not known for kid-glove politics, has subsided. But the political fallout will endure for years, especially among gay men and lesbians in New York--and elsewhere--fuming at the Human Rights Campaign's endorsement of Republican incumbent Alfonse D'Amato over his Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles Schumer.

For HRC, the endorsement represents a kind of coming-of-age moment, in gay politics. "We'll never achieve gay and lesbian civil fights without both parties engaged in that process," says the group's executive director Elizabeth Birch. "And we have preserved out credibility for being consistent and true to bipartisan principles."

But the decision stirred considerable outrage and did little to boost D'Amato's campaign. On Election Day, Schumer defeated the incumbent Republican 55%-45%. If anything, some activists argued, HRC's stance had a boomerang effect. "We noticed a surge in support for Schumer that resulted from the intense anger generated by the D'Amato endorsement," says Matthew Foreman, executive director of Empire Stale Pride Agenda, a statewide gay group that endorsed Schumer. "It really mobilized people to go vote."

Birch concedes that although the endorsement process was "painful and arduous," it adhered to HRC's standards of weighing the candidates' voting records on gay issues and supporting incumbents, such as in this race, in which the records are relatively equal. Still, one board member resigned as a result of the endorsement, which had been the subject of press speculation for months.

But the board's debate was nothing compared to the tumult that followed. Within minutes of the October 20 announcement, phones, faxes, and modems of gay New York began buzzing with a fury. D'Amato, many naysayers say, was a conservative wolf in a tight race who donned some liberal sheep's clothing to play to the home audience, especially in New York City.

Critics cite D'Amato's prior antigay positions (he took office in 1981, but his position on gay issues has improved since 1993), his high ratings from the Christian Coalition, and his opposition to abortion. They also point to his alleged failure as the highest-ranking party member in the state to lean on the leadership of the Republican-controlled state legislature to allow votes on hate-crimes legislation and nondiscrimination protections.

"This is an awful decision that destroys all of HRC's credibility," Stephen Gendin, a longtime AIDS activist, said in an E-mail widely circulated in New York. "I encourage you to stop donating any money to HRC.... HRC hopes we'll all forget about this lousy decision and that things will blow over in a couple of months. Don't let this happen.... Don't let them ignore your anger."

"HRC is a right-wing lobby," charges Bill Dobbs, a longtime activist and leftist gadfly. "At a time when the country's moving right, we don't have anyone to keep them honest. Never have so many significant enemies been propped up by gay organizations claiming they're our friends.

"At some point," warns Dobbs, "people will throw their hands up and take these organizations back. I'm elated there's a big backlash."

New York city council member Tom Duane said that a vote for D'Amato was a vote for Trent Lott, the less than gay-friendly Senate majority leader, arguing that D'Amato "raised a lot of money for Republican senators who won't sponsor or vote for ENDA." The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is a federal bill that would prevent job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Like many gay New Yorkers, Duane blames D'Amato for not orchestrating passage of pro-gay bills in Albany. "He's dean of the state Republican Party, which is intolerant and has denied basic civil rights to the gay community," says Duane, a Democrat. "He could say the word, and we'd be able to pass hate-crimes and civil rights bills in New York."

But Birch says state-level issues will "never" be considered in congressional endorsements. "We have to judge them by the body they sit in," she says. "I don't know one national PAC [political action committee] that would evaluate a representative in Congress on what happened in the state legislature. It makes no sense." Likewise, she says, a dual endorsement would have been pointless.

Birch seemed a bit shell-shocked after HRC fielded hundreds of calls from furious New Yorkers, many canceling membership and vowing never to donate again. "The reaction was visceral," she notes. "The feelings this guy engenders are unbelievable. And we understand the anger. This was very much a Sophie's choice."

The HRC board's decision to endorse D'Amato--and donate $5,000 to his campaign--was based on his incumbency and his record in the just-ended session of Congress. He earned an 83% rating from HRC for his votes on gay-related legislation in the Senate during that session. Schumer received a 100% rating for his House votes in the same session, but Birch says such apples-and-oranges bicameral comparisons are invalid. And she dismisses complaints that D'Amato's support on gay issues--he sponsored every key Senate bill and publicly rebuked Lott over the Senate block of the ambassadorial nomination of openly gay philanthropist James Hormel--is shorter-lived than Schumer's, saying that HRC analyzes votes only from the current Congress.

During the previous session of Congress, D'Amato voted for ENDA. Schumer is a sponsor of bill, which has yet to be voted on in the House. Also in that, session both candidates voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition of same-sex marriage and allows any state to deny recognition.

Other HRC board members agree with rewarding Republicans for good deeds done. "HRC was right," says Andrew Tobias, a writer and New York Democrat. "In recent years he's been a good friend to the community, whose interests HRC is charged with advancing. Not to acknowledge that, record would be unfair--and unwise."

But didn't Tobias personally support Schumer? Well, yes. "I deeply disagree with D'Amato's stands on so many of the issues that have won him a high rating from the Christian Coalition," he says, "most notably, the issue of choice."

HRC's effort at bipartisan outreach did win some praise. "Al D'Amato's a much better gay rights champion in a Senate majority than a freshman liberal Democrat in a Democratic minority," says Kevin Ivers, director of public affairs for the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay lobbying group. "It's consistent with HRC's criteria. It makes perfect sense."

But gay GOPers had troubles of their own at the end of the campaign trail. Their endorsed candidate in the California Senate race, Republican Matt Fong, had made a $50,000 contribution to the Traditional Values Coalition, a religions-right group that has been in the forefront of antigay battles. Fong's contribution allowed incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer, who was in a tight race with Fong, to portray him as an extremist and pull ahead in the polls. Fong tried to recoup his moderate image by signing on to a series of pro-gay promises, including support for Hormel's nomination, only to be attacked from his erstwhile supporters on the right as lacking principles.

Because of Fong's promises, the Log Cabin Republicans decided to stick with its endorsement of him. "It is a concern, but you're not going to get 100% on issues from any candidate," says Ivers. He says gay Republicans met with the Fong campaign and "asked for a complete explanation." Having been satisfied, Ivers dismisses the critics: "People with knee-jerk reactions, who go into attack mode yelling and screaming like the sky is falling down, are not being visionary." That vision, however, did not extend to California voters. They easily reelected Boxer 54%-43%.

Kirby contributes regularly to The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Human Rights Campaign angers gay voters in New York
Author:KIRBY, DAVID
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 8, 1998
Words:1282
Previous Article:Open House.
Next Article:Shoot to thrill.
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