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The D'Amato factor.

As the state auditor of Vermont, Ed Flanagan is the only openly gay statewide-elected official in America and the first serious gay candidate for the U.S. Senate from anywhere. He's smart, he's articulate, and he's already raised $600,000 for a race that will probably cost no more than $2 million (compared to at least $33 million in the New Jersey Democratic primary alone). Lesbians and gays have a historic opportunity to rally around a viable candidate and put a human face on our cause, right under the nose of Trent Lott, who is fond of comparing us to kleptomaniacs.

I've known Flanagan for 25 years. While most members of my generation have turned their backs on the ideals they grew up with to focus on the size of their bank accounts, Flanagan has devoted himself to public service, carving out a reputation as a maverick watchdog during nearly eight years as the Vermont auditor.

While Vermont's incumbent Republican U.S. senator, Jim Jeffords, voted for the Defense of Marriage Act and kept silent during the debate over civil unions in Vermont, Flanagan lobbied hard to convince his Democratic friends to make the difficult votes in favor of the landmark legislation.

With so much going for him, you might think that the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay organization in America, would be rushing to support Flanagan in his uphill fight against Jeffords. Think again. Many of the staff members at HRC are leaning toward Jeffords.

HRC loves the fact that a few Republican senators will actually return their phone calls and occasionally even declare themselves in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The trouble is, a vote for Jeffords is also a vote for Lott, and everyone acknowledges that the Senate majority leader is the insurmountable obstacle to any progress on any pro-gay legislation. As David Nyhan wrote in The Boston Globe a couple of years ago, the congressional Republicans are "kept in power by a precarious balance of conservative party regulars and radical religious fringe elements," and Jeffords is one of those regulars.

But HRC doesn't care how legislators vote on abortion or taxes or anything else as long as they make the right noises on some of our issues--which is why the organization made itself so overwhelmingly unpopular in New York two years ago.

Back in 1998 HRC was so excited that New York's then--U.S. senator Al D'Amato had come out for ENDA that the Washington lobby ignored the wishes of virtually every gay leader in New York and endorsed D'Amato over Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn-based congressman with a broad progressive record who had supported gay rights much longer than D'Amato had.

That decision caused a firestorm from which HRC has yet to recover in the Empire State. "I don't know when all that hostility is going to recede," says one 30-year veteran of gay rights causes in Manhattan, "but it sure as hell hasn't receded yet." Other gay leaders cited HRC's endorsement as the reason they boycotted the HRC-supported march on Washington this year.

HRC says it has to reward the people who support us, and Jeffords supports ENDA, although Flanagan says most Vermonters have never heard him say that.

In fact, Jeffords chairs the committee where ENDA has been languishing since it failed to pass the Senate by one vote in 1996. What is Jeffords's strategy to finally get the legislation passed?

"He has no idea that I will share with you," his spokesman told me.

Did Jeffords denounce Lott after he pandered to the religious right with his crazed attack on gay people in 1998? "I think it came up on a radio show, but I can't give you a quote," said Jeffords's spokesman.

Personally I think HRC is crazy not to endorse Flanagan. But the group can still remain faithful to its commitment to "bipartisanship" without alienating voters who support our genuine friends. In difficult races, the solution is simple: dual endorsements or no endorsements at all. HRC political director Winnie Stachelberg says she doesn't favor dual endorsements because "politics is about making choices, and incumbents need to be rewarded for those votes." The trouble is, HRC is too quick to reward incumbents for too little--and the people who suffer are our real champions.
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Article Details
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Author:Kaiser, Charles
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 18, 2000
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