Monday, August 6, 2007

Democrats to Court Gay Voter at Forum

Democrats to Court Gay Voters at Forum
Most of the Democratic hopefuls will participate in the nation’s first presidential forum devoted solely to lesbian and gay issues. Why they’re courting a small, but important, voting bloc.
By Kendyl Salcito
Updated: 5:03 p.m. ET Aug 4, 2007
Aug. 5, 2007 - In a crowded primary field, every vote counts. So it’s probably not surprising that six of the eight Democratic presidential contenders for 2008 plan to participate in the first debate devoted entirely to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues on Aug. 9 in Los Angeles. (Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd declined to attend, citing scheduling conflicts) Still, the event’s sponsors, the Human Rights Campaign and Viacom’s Logo cable TV network, are touting the event as an historic opportunity for the gay community to raise its issues on a national stage. The forum, moderated by Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News, will run from 9-11 p.m. ET on Logo and (The sponsors say they invited GOP candidates to participate in their own gay debate, but that none signed on.)

While gay and lesbian voters have largely been a reliable voting bloc for Democrats at least since the ‘80s, some activists say their community is taken for granted by the party. Privately, political strategists say candidates walk a fine line between being progressive on gay issues and possibly alienating some conservative voters, including some Democrats. NEWSWEEK’s Kendyl Salcito spoke with John D’Emilio, a historian of gay history and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, about the upcoming event. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How significant is this event?
John D’Emilio: Since the Mondale campaign in 1984, the Democratic Party at the national level has not had a great deal of trouble speaking about gay issues and speaking to gay audiences. They’ve done that with a great deal of consistency. So in this view the debate is one more, small step in a path that’s really been carved out for more than 20 years. The party has had much more difficulty at the national level in delivering anything. They love to talk about gay issues and to welcome gay constituents into the fold, but they just haven’t provided very much concretely. Maybe that’s because since the ‘80s there have been only very short periods when there’s been both a Democratic president and Democratic control of both houses [of Congress].

What issues will be central in this forum?
Inevitably, in the year 2007 the issue of marriage is going to come up, and it would not surprise me at all if the debate gets hijacked by that issue, because that’s where [the Democratic candidates] have the most difficulty. I think that there are four issues that are probably key for the coming election: The issue of hate crimes, including crimes based on sexual orientation, in federal statutes; an anti-discrimination act including sexual orientation in the general civil rights legislation; “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which technically is something that just the president could deliver on with an executive order; and same-sex marriage. Clinton, for example, issued an executive order against discrimination of [gay] federal employees, and he distributed federal grant money for studies of gay and lesbian health.

You refer to gay health and lesbian health separately. Do the two groups have the same political concerns?
No. Obviously they’re not completely different, but just as an example, around health issues, the issue that just rose to the top of the heap in the ‘80s was AIDS. It would be a terrible mistake to say that’s not an issue to lesbians. There are lesbians who use IV drugs, and there are lesbians who have had sex with men, but lesbians have been much more concerned about cancer, particularly cancers that specifically strike women. And there isn’t enough research to know whether lesbians are less or more likely to suffer from those kinds of cancers.

Only about four percent of the voting population is gay. Is the focus of a “gay debate” too narrow?
Well, four percent self-identified as gay or lesbian or bisexual. There are two points to make about that. First, there are still people who won’t self-identify, so the figure is probably a little bigger—maybe six percent. And we know that the six percent is not equally distributed around the country. Urban areas are more likely to have a higher percentage than rural ones. You’re going to have larger populations in the state of Massachusetts than you’re going to have in North Dakota. So in some states this forum might make a bigger difference than in others.

But second, I think same-sex marriage these days, and AIDS earlier in the ‘80s and ‘90s, demonstrated that lots of people have really strong feelings about gay issues. When you’re having a debate where the candidates are addressing these issues, there’s this four or five percent that are really concerned about it, but there’s also the larger population that finds it relevant. Some are concerned about it because they have family members who are gay; some are concerned because they’re religious and their religions say it’s wrong. I have no idea what the TV audience will be for this. The audience might not be large, but once it starts to circulate online and in the media, people will hear what the candidates were saying, and it will be relevant to a lot of people.

Some gay activists lament the fact that when major political candidates are asked about gay issues, the candidates give broad, generic answers that apply to heterosexuals as well, instead of answering the specific question. Do you think that will happen here?
I don’t know. They’ll be up on the stage for [two hours] articulating their stands on gay issues. What will they actually say? Are they trying to not antagonize anyone? Are they trying to carve out a really clear position? Who are they trying to appeal to in their statements? Are they trying to appeal to the gay audience or are they trying to appeal to the non-gay audience? No matter what their position, I think that candidates who waffle will really be hurt in the gay community. But I think that some candidates that are too “pro-gay” will find themselves turning off the swing voters that are looking more moderate. This is still pre-primary … but it’s part of the big picture.

In the last election presidential, 23 percent of gay voters didn’t vote for John Kerry, according to CNN exit polls. Logo/HRC is only holding a Democratic debate, though, because Republican candidates declined to participate. Will that impact gay voters at the ballot box?
I think it can, but in this context, the level of dissatisfaction with the Bush presidency is so high that I think, across the spectrum, people who might ordinarily vote for a Republican aren’t going to. And some of those will be gay people. I think it also depends on who the Republican candidate is. For instance, I think a Mitt Romney would—because he is seen to be so opportunistic and so unethical around these issues—be very hard for gay Republicans to vote for. On the other hand a Rudy Giuliani or a Fred Thompson, maybe they could [attract gay voters].

It’s not unlike African-American Republicans. In the case of gay voters who vote Republican—which is something like one-fourth or one-fifth—they’re voting Republican because gay issues are not the most important issues to them. And in this day and age especially, that’s not so surprising, because there is enough acceptance in the culture and society at large around being gay that if you’re very well educated, if you have a really good income, if you don’t really have to worry about gay discrimination, you can vote pocketbook issues, you can vote against big-government, you might be taking a libertarian point of view. So on the one hand it seems natural to react, “Oh my God, listen to the rhetoric of the Republican Party, and listen to their platform. How could you vote for them?” But the argument would be, “I’m not just gay, I’m also a banker,” or “I live in this region of the country and we’re all Republicans.”


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