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Courting the Gay Vote.

When Vice President Al Gore showed up for a June meeting with young people at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center, he was confronted by a skeptical Javier Garcia.

"I want to know exactly why you're here," said Garcia, twenty, challenging Gore with unusual bluntness.

Taken aback, Gore responded in classic political jargon. "I'm here to learn and to pay honor to the place," he said and praised the center for "helping to change attitudes and abolish some irrational discrimination that is all too common."

In spite of Gore's game effort, Garcia said he was "suspicious" that the visit might have something to do with the Vice President's desire to get an early start on the 2000 Presidential campaign.

Garcia, a polite young man who presented the Vice President with a book of poems by homeless gay and lesbian youths, had reason for his skepticism. After all, Gore's challenger for the Democratic Presidential nomination, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, Democrat of New Jersey, had appeared at the Center just one week earlier. Even as the Vice President offered his platitudes, his aides were dueling with Bradley's over which campaign had been the first to come up with the idea of making a Gay Pride Month visit to the Los Angeles center.

As Campaign 2000 gears up, electioneering and fundraising events targeted at the gay and lesbian community are headlining campaign schedules. In May, Gore met in Washington, D.C., with forty-five prominent lesbian and gay community activists, including executives and board members of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, AIDS Action, the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, the National Black Lesbian and Gay Task Force, and the National Latina/Latino Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Organization.

Gore then whirled through a schedule of events set up to coincide with Gay Pride Month activities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But when he got there, he found that Bradley had already covered much of the turf.

Gore has gone so far as to request a "gay reading list" from State Representative Carole Migden, Democrat of California. Meanwhile, Bradley aides have begun setting up one-on-one conversations with prominent gay and lesbian officials around the country--including U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin, Democrat of Wisconsin, and veteran activist and Democratic fundraiser David Mixner--so the candidate can "get a feel for the community."

Despite their outreach, however, neither Gore nor Bradley has been willing to take the courageous positions that could inspire genuine enthusiasm among lesbian and gay voters. True, both Gore and Bradley have endorsed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and national hate-crimes legislation. But, so far, their campaigns have shied away from the bold stances--support for gay marriage, for federal domestic partnership protections, and for a dramatic redirection of health care and research funding priorities to reflect the concerns of gay men and lesbians. It is these stances that might win the confidences of young people like Garcia, who listened intently to Gore's rap at the Los Angeles center, but still ended up asking, "What can you say to make us believe you will help the gay community?"

That question gets to the heart of the issue. But it doesn't always get a satisfactory response. While Presidential candidates are going out of their way to solicit support from lesbians and gays in the run-up to the 2000 election, their enthusiasm for votes and campaign contributions is not always matched by a willingness to do right by the targeted voters. As a result, some activists simply turn off to politics, while others struggle to discern subtle distinctions between candidates who speak in the same stilted--some would even say coded--political language. Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political group, describes Gore's relationship with the community as "solid and deep" while she says Bradley "is not a stand-out" when it comes to advocacy for lesbian and gay rights. Yet, neither the Vice President nor his only serious rival for the Democratic nomination can claim to have adopted some positions that are clearly within the mainstream of current lesbian and gay rights advocacy.

As an example, both men supported the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, designed by the Christian right to bar lesbians and gays from marrying and to stir up anti-gay sentiment at the state and national levels. When asked during their June tours of California about an upcoming state vote on an anti-gay marriage ballot proposal, both candidates shied away from the issue. Gore produced nothing more than a pledge to study the California initiative before taking a stand.

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force political director Rebecca Isaacs calls Gore's position "incredibly unhelpful and disappointing." Similarly, when Gore proposed in May to direct more federal dollars to "faith-based" groups, lesbian and gay activists joined People for the American Way and the Interfaith Alliance in raising serious concerns about whether taxpayer dollars would end up funding religious organizations that promote anti-gay messages.

Despite lingering frustrations, however, the 2000 Presidential campaign is fundamentally different from its predecessors. Never before have candidates competed so openly or so vigorously for the votes of America's gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-gendered community. Even if they are not ready to take bold stands, Gore and Bradley are both pursuing major efforts to recruit support, seeding their campaign staffs with lesbians and gay men, sitting for extended interviews with lesbian and gay publications, and tailoring schedules and positions to appeal to an electorate that in some key primaries could contribute 10 percent or more of the vote. The two Democratic candidates have pledged to recruit historic numbers of gay and lesbian delegates to the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

"The days when the gay and lesbian community had to court candidates--when we had to hope that they would pose for pictures with us or circulate a position paper that didn't say very much--are over," says Urvashi Vaid, director of the New York-based Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "They're coming to us now. From the perspective of just a few years ago, it's extraordinary to be able to say that we have major contenders who are going out of their way to reach our community. We're not begging the Presidential candidates and their campaigns for recognition; they're begging gays and lesbians for votes and for money."

That was obvious in July, when Tipper Gore was the featured speaker at the first-ever Washington fundraising event organized by a Presidential campaign specifically to raise money from the lesbian and gay community. "All people, regardless of sexual orientation, should be able to be a part of a loving relationship in a family without fear of recrimination or discrimination," she told a crowd that contributed $150,000 to her husband's campaign. Before the event ended, she was promising that her husband, as President, would "fight for your dreams. He will fight for our dreams."

The pursuit of the gay and lesbian vote does not stop with the Democrats. While the most conservative GOP contenders--former Vice President Dan Quayle, commentator Pat Buchanan, and Christian right activist Gary Bauer--continue to spout anti-gay rhetoric, the campaigns of Republican front runners George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, and John McCain have cautiously reached out to GOP-linked gay and lesbian organizations.

The Log Cabin Republicans, the party's largest gay and lesbian grouping, may have gone a bit overboard when--following an oblique reference by the Texas governor to his willingness to appoint qualified people--they sent out an April press release headlined: BUSH TAKES BIG STEP IN FAVOR OF GAY RIGHTS. But there is no denying that Bush has, at most turns, refused the harsh anti-gay positioning demanded by the religious right. He has even been quoted as personally pledging to Washington, D.C., gay Republican activist Carl Schmid, "I will always treat [lesbians and gays] with respect, and that is what you deserve."

To the consternation of the Christian Coalition, Dole and McCain (who rank second and third in most polls) have also been preaching the big-tent rhetoric that almost disappeared from the GOP lexicon following the 1994 Gingrich revolution. "They may not be saying a lot of what we want to hear, but they're trying to put some distance between themselves and the radical right," explains Vaid. "A willingness to, at the least, say that you won't discriminate against gays and lesbians has become a litmus test for candidates who want to establish their moderate credentials--which is important for Republicans who want to compete in November."

The rationale for this broadened appeal to gays and lesbians is understandable. Exit polls following the 1998 Congressional elections indicated that 5 percent of voters identified as gay or lesbian. In some key states, the numbers were significantly higher. And that, argues Mixner, is only the beginning. "The `gay vote' goes a lot further than the gay and lesbian community," he explains. "When one of us comes out of the closet, we bring three or four votes with us. When I came out, my parents, my relatives, my friends suddenly became a lot more aware of the need to vote for candidates who support gay and lesbian rights. If I say to someone who loves me, `Look, you can't vote for this candidate because he would deny me basic rights or he would use his office to encourage violence against me,' they get it."

Mixner's view is supported by Democratic polling that suggests one in seven of the votes Bill Clinton collected in his 1992 Presidential run came from people who voted for him because of indications that he would support lesbian and gay rights initiatives.

But can Republicans really be serious when they make subtle appeals for lesbian and gay votes? You bet. The notion that lesbians and gay men tend exclusively toward the Democratic column has been disproven by exit polling that indicates between one-quarter and one-third of self-identified lesbian and gay voters cast their ballots for GOP contenders. Indeed, in some instances where Republicans have been out front in their support of lesbian and gay rights--such as former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, and Representative Tom Campbell of California--lesbian and gay voters have been credited with helping provide the GOP margin of victory.

Still, Vaid and other lesbian and gay activists doubt that any of the GOP's Presidential contenders will show the sort of courage that Weld did during his two terms as governor when he appointed openly gay officials to powerful state posts, signed a sweeping gay rights bill, and worked to protect people with AIDS against discrimination. "All the Republican Presidential candidates in 2000 are bad and degrees of worse," says Vaid. "Pat Buchanan, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes--they don't provide a very hopeful picture. Even George W. Bush, for all his talk about `compassionate conservatism,' has failed to support anti-hate-crimes legislation. He is the sitting governor of a state that still has sodomy laws on the books. He says gay adoption is wrong. So I think that most of the gay and lesbian vote will probably end up going to the Democrats in November 2000."

So, too, will most of the campaign money. In 1992, Mixner set out to prove that lesbians and gays could provide substantial contributions to candidates who support their interests. "That year, we raised $3.5 million for Bill Clinton from the gay community. I know because I handled the checks," says Mixner. "And I can tell you that, with the boom in high tech and the general rise in the economy, there will be a lot more money than ever before coming from the gay community in 2000."

Mixner, who is backing Gore, estimates that Presidential campaign donations by gays and lesbians will add up to $8 million or more over the next year and a half.

"With the way campaigns go after money these days, there is no way that Gore or Bradley is going to write off the gay community," adds Mixner. "But it goes way beyond money. In California, in New York, in Texas, the candidates know that gay and lesbian voters could easily make the difference for them. And they're going after those votes aggressively."

The pursuit of gay and lesbian votes and money is a far cry from campaigns of even a decade ago, when homosexuality was kept pretty much in the closet. At the 1972 Democratic National Convention that nominated George McGovern, several gay delegates were present and McGovern expressed his sympathy for their appeals for liberation. After McGovern was badly beaten, however, the party scrambled away from so-called interest groups--a catch-all classification that would eventually come to include not just lesbians and gays but African Americans, Latinos, and trade unionists. It was not until 1992 that a major party would support an explicitly gay-friendly nominee. With the help of Mixner, Bob Hattoy, and other well-connected gay activists, the 1992 Clinton campaign capitalized on the political maturation of the lesbian and gay community to draw early campaign money and overwhelming support from voters who feared the Republicans' virulent anti-gay platform.

But the Clinton Administration's record on lesbian and gay rights has turned out to be decidedly mixed. While the President appointed lesbians and gay men to high posts, backed the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and made comforting statements in the aftermath of hate crime attacks on lesbians and gays, he backed off initial promises to end all discrimination in the military and signed the Defense of Marriage Act.

In Clinton's wake, Gore is under pressure to do more than simply offer lip service. Many of his backers believe the Vice President will meet their expectations. "I think Al Gore is better on these issues than Bill Clinton," says Mixner, who has met frequently with the Vice President. "Clinton went from zero to sixty. Al Gore, I think, is prepared to take it to the next level. To some extent, he's already doing that."

In June, Gore indicated for the first time that he supports "legal protections" for domestic partnership relationships. A number of cities around the country have passed domestic partnership legislation that allows lesbian and gay couples to share health insurance, take advantage of inheritance laws, and in other ways enjoy the benefits that are available to married couples. These local laws have been under attack by conservatives at the federal and state levels, and Gore's stance is seen by many lesbian and gay activists as a significant step.

"In 1992, it was a big deal to have a candidate--Clinton--saying he would try to do something about overt discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military," says Vaid. "Now, we have candidates discussing the whole range of issues, and we're seeing them begin to move in the right direction on issues like domestic partnership protections."

At times, however, movement in the right direction requires a push. For example, by concentrating on Gore's campaign, activists seem to have made some progress on the expansion of the availability of AIDS drugs in Africa. Throughout the spring and summer, activists with the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) and other groups have followed Gore on his campaign travels, challenging the Clinton Administration's support for a move by pharmaceutical firms to limit production of generic AIDS drugs in South Africa. In mid-July, the Administration--sensing a threat to Gore's appeal not merely within the gay community but also among African Americans--gave indications that it was rethinking its policy. Activists remain wary, and the pressure on Gore continues. Yet the response by the Clinton Administration raises hopes that, as the campaign goes on, both Gore and Bradley can be pushed to take the bolder stands they so far have skirted. In particular, Mixner hopes to see them clearly state their opposition to the California anti-gay-marriage initiative.

"That initiative is a direct attack on the rights of gays and lesbians," he says. "I don't think it is at all unreasonable to demand that candidates who would ask for our votes would take absolute positions in opposition to this initiative." Mixner notes that the Clinton Administration's clumsy and compromised handling of the whole gays-in-the-military fight in 1993 resulted in a significant decline in lesbian and gay turnout in the 1994 elections. Those lesbians and gay men who did vote continued to trend in a Democratic direction, but the depressed turnout in key states was one of the factors that doomed the party's attempt to hold onto the U.S. House and Senate.

Without a strong lesbian and gay turnout in 2000, Mixner says, it will be difficult for the party's nominee to win in November. Yet that strong turnout will come only if the candidates display the sort of courage that inspires genuine enthusiasm. Thus, the veteran activist argues, the need to pressure the candidates to take unequivocal stands on issues such as the California initiative becomes all the more profound.

"What Gore or Bradley does on this issue and so many others will be determined, in large part, by those of us in the lesbian and gay community and by family and friends who support us. If we allow them to take a pass, then they'll take a pass," says Mixner. "But if we take the time to let them know that they will need to show some courage on these issues if they want to have a significant turnout of gay and lesbian voters--a turnout they will ultimately need to win--then I think we can get beyond symbolism to some of the serious commitments that we have a right to demand."
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Title Annotation:presidential candidates for year 2000
Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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