In a sharp break from any of its past public statements, an internal memorandum from the Empire State Pride Agenda, leaked to the news media this week, brought to light harsh criticisms of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton—for her stand on same-sex marriage—made by Alan Van Capelle, the group’s executive director.
“Supporting an LGBT fundraiser for Hillary Clinton will actually hurt our community,” Van Capelle stated in a February 10 e-mail message sent confidentially to ESPA’s two-dozen board members. In the same message, first reported on the New York Observer’s Web site on Tuesday, Van Capelle said that he would not “lend my name and sell tickets” to a March 10 gay fundraiser planned for Diane von Furstenberg’s Studio on West 12th Street.
Many prominent leaders in the community, including newly-elected City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, are part of the event’s host committee.
Quinn’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the e-mail message, which the Pride Agenda insists was not intended for public consumption despite the large number of recipients, has laid bare an escalating dilemma for gay leaders—to what degree to hold to the fire the feet of politicians who are supportive of many LGBT and other progressive political goals, but have not endorsed equal marriage rights.
“This year, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson, Alan Hevesi, Andrew Cuomo, Mark Green, Sean Maloney, and others are running for statewide office and are in favor of marriage equality for gays and lesbians,” Van Capelle wrote, referring to half a dozen Democratic hopefuls for various offices. “When our struggle is over, they will be recorded as having been on the right side of history and as of now Hillary Clinton will not be with them.”
In explaining why donating money to Clinton’s 2006 Senate re-election campaign, widely seen as a precursor to a presidential bid in 2008, would “actually hurt our community,” Van Capelle, who said she deserved another term, wrote, “It will send a message to other elected officials that you can be working against us during this critical time and not suffer a negative pushback from the gay community. We have become a community that throws money at politicians and we demand nothing in return. And that’s what we get—nothing. It’s the wrong message to send.”
The Van Capelle memo electrified gay political circles and so befuddled The New York Times that its story Wednesday confused the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton and still supported by the senator, with efforts by the current president to pass a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage nationwide. The Times erroneously reported that Clinton supports George W. Bush’s drive for an amendment, when in fact she has repeatedly denounced it.
The Clinton camp immediately pressed for and won a correction on the Times Web site as well as one planned for Thursday’s print edition, but the senator and her staff were caught off guard and angered by the rebuke from the Pride Agenda, according to sources close to the New York Democrat who insisted on anonymity. Public comment from Clinton’s office was circumspect.
“Senator Clinton has been steadfast in her belief that LGBT people in committed relationships should have the rights, benefits, and protections they seek through civil unions and domestic partnerships,” Jennifer Hanley, a Clinton spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message. “This includes equality of economic benefits, such as access to a partner’s health insurance and life insurance, and other basic rights such as hospital visitation.”
Hanley noted that Clinton was an original co-sponsor of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would give partners of federal employees the same benefits as those offered legal spouses. She also underscored the senator’s opposition to any constitutional amendment.
If the Clinton team held their fire, some of the senator’s supporters in the LGBT community were not so quiet.
“I think it was disrespectful [of ESPA] not to talk to the gay elected officials, advising them that they were going to do this,” said Emily Giske, a lesbian who is one of the state Democratic Party’s vice chairs. “They rarely consult the gay and lesbian Democratic electeds.”
Giske also noted that the Pride Agenda, which is a nonpartisan group, has in the past endorsed Republican candidates and incumbents for the state Senate despite the fact that the GOP-controlled chamber has traditionally been very slow to come around on gay rights issues, if at all.
“Unfortunately the head of the Pride Agenda thinks its okay to attack our friends when they support a Republican caucus in Albany that is not as organically friendly.”
An ESPA board member, who received the February 10 memo, also criticized the group, while insisting on anonymity.
“This was done in a vacuum,” that board member said. “I’m all in favor of putting elected officials’ feet to the fire, but this is a rag-tag way of doing business.”
The board member went on to speculate that Van Capelle’s actions were urged on him by a small number of major donors less interested in a broad progressive agenda—including choice and other social issues—than a decisive coalescence around marriage rights.
Jonathan Capehart, a former journalist who is a Democrat but was a high-profile supporter of Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg in both his election races, noted that Clinton had previously enjoyed the Pride Agenda’s support.
“The Hillary Rodham Clinton who spoke at Alan’s first ESPA dinner as executive director in 2003 is the same Hillary Rodham Clinton today,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Her commitment to the gay community is strong. To question that is short-sighted and wrong. The days when ESPA was pragmatic, strategic, and had long-term focus appear to be over.”
Even the Log Cabin Republicans’ New York City chapter, faced with the opportunity to tweak the Democratic Party for its failure to deliver fully for a community that offers it overwhelming support, took a pass, instead calling for ongoing discussions to move the marriage issue forward.
“Drawing a line in the sand and creating a marriage litmus test for our elected officials gives us great pause,” Christopher Taylor, the chapter president, said in an e-mail message, in which he endorsed sentiments voiced by Democratic Senator Tom Duane quoted in Wednesday’s Times. “We believe it is better to maintain a dialogue with elected officials who are open-minded but may not yet agree with us on marriage equality.”
Duane was among those who made a strong affirmative case for Clinton. Referring to her and to senior Senator Charles Schumer, who took a lot of heat from the community in 1996 for his pro-DOMA vote, but has since twice won ESPA’s endorsement for the Senate, Duane told Gay City News, “I spoke to Chuck and Hillary and they both assured me that if the New York court says we should be allowed to marry, they will support the decision.”
Ethan Geto, a longtime activist who ran Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign in New York, said that in personal conversations he has had with Clinton, she has been emphatic about her view that committed gay and lesbian couples should have “full equality of economic benefits” with married heterosexuals at the city, state, and federal levels.
“She takes the most progressive position among Democrats on the national stage,” he said. “Would I like her to say she supports gay marriage? Yes. But are we back to the perfect being the enemy of the good? Is she one of our champions? Is she one of the very small number of people we would like to see as a presidential candidate? I say yes.”
Geto said he was “unhappy to disagree with Alan, because I think he has been a terrific leader,” but added that Van Capelle’s memo had “an aggressiveness and harshness… way out of proportion to the situation.”
The Pride Agenda’s spokesman, Joe Tarver, declined to respond to any of this criticism, except to note, “We’ve had an overwhelming number of responses… and it’s all positive, not one negative response.”
Jeff Soref, a former ESPA board chairman and former member of the Democratic National Committee, said he has lent his name to the Clinton fundraiser, but voiced agreement that the Democrats need to be pushed on the marriage issue. He noted the growing perception that “Democrats seem to be running away from the gay community or trying to change the relationship with the gay community,” and reiterated criticism he voiced weeks ago of Party Chairman Howard Dean, whom he faults for a reorganization of the DNC that he says diminishes the influence of the LGBT community.
Soref argued forcefully against what he said is a misperception that gay marriage was the issue that doomed the John Kerry presidential campaign in 2004, but insisted that “the community’s engagement with elected officials needs to be a constructive engagement” and that “we have to make clear what it is we need from them.”
Asked if he considered the ESPA memo constructive, Soref said he believed it was never intended to be made public.
“Hillary Clinton has done what we’ve asked her to do as a senator,” he said, “but as she moves forward to run, perhaps, for the presidency, I think it is a broader platform and I think she needs to make clear that the LGBT community is included in that.” Saying he has counseled Clinton advisers that she has been too “low-key on our issues recently,” Soref said, “I plan to tell her that when I see her.”
Other community leaders were less restrained in their criticism of Clinton.
“I think Alan is right on,” said Doug Robinson, co-president of the Out People of Color Political Action Club and a plaintiff in one of the ongoing civil marriage lawsuits. “I am tired of voting for the lesser of two evils. Hillary has clearly not been with us on this critical civil rights issue. She has been disingenuous about her position on LGBT rights.”
“What has she ever done for the gay community? Marched in the parade?” asked Alan Fleishman, a gay Democratic district leader in Brooklyn. “She’s treated like a rock star in the community. She doesn’t even speak to our grassroots groups as Schumer did. Greater Voices [a coalition of gay Democratic clubs] has been trying to get a meeting with her for a year and can’t…. Alan Van Capelle deserves credit for this.”
Clinton’s office said it was unaware of any request for a meeting from city gay Democratic clubs, but would welcome, and in an election year even expected, such a dialogue.
“It is something I could probably help set up,” said Geto, who pledged to work to get a specific response from Clinton within a matter of days.