National Leaders Look to 2006

National Leaders Look to 2006

Human Rights Campaign, Log Cabin Republicans, Stonewall Democrats join Manhattan forum

In a panel of national gay leaders convened last week in Manhattan, America’s leading gay Republican promised “a bit of a civil war” within the GOP, a top gay Democrat vowed to unseat Pennsylvania’s stridently homophobic U.S. senator, Rick Santorum, and the head of the Human Rights Campaign said the American “mindset” has shifted during the past year from fear to anger, with important implications for the LGBT community.

The occasion was a surprisingly freewheeling one-hour discussion at Chelsea’s Helen Mills Theater on November 10 hosted by HRC that included Joe Solmonese, the group’s president, Eric Stern, the executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, Patrick Guerriero, president of the National Log Cabin Republicans, and Emily Giske, a lesbian who is a top official in the New York State Democratic Party and serves on the Democratic National Committee.

The panel’s topic was a look forward to the 2006 elections, and came just days after the 2005 off-elections, in which Democrats claimed big victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races and in beating back a bloc of voter initiatives spurred by California’s Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger—even as New York City began its fourth consecutive mayoral term in GOP hands.

Solmonese, who heads a group that is bipartisan, even if the bulk of its political endorsements go to Democrats, conceded that he is a “strong Democrat” in his personal voting, but was quick to caution those in attendance against reading too much into last Tuesday’s results in terms of the prognosis for 2006 and 2008.

“I think one of the biggest challenges Democrats have, despite the election results and despite the president’s plummeting numbers, is that they still continue to have failed to close the deal,” he said, arguing that the Democratic gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia largely reflected local political circumstances and that Schwarzenegger’s drubbing resulted from his having fallen “into Jesse Ventura syndrome more than anything else,” referring to the colorful, but one-term former Minnesota governor.

Guerriero also voiced wariness about over-interpreting this November’s vote as a rejection of the Bush administration’s assiduous courting of the religious right and of Middle East adventurists. In fact, the Log Cabin leader warned that undue emphasis on charting electoral wins and losses obscured a more fundamental challenge facing LGBT Americans.

“My sense of where we will be in 2006 and more realistically where we are going to be in 2008 is that a lot of our friends are going to disappoint us because their pollsters are doing a lot of work and a lot of polling around the issue of marriage equality,” Guerriero predicted. “And a lot of our friends are going to say things that are going to tick us off and the only way to respond to that is to reach a day in this country where a pollster walks in to John Kerry’s campaign office or George Bush’s campaign headquarters and says, ‘Guess what? Running an anti-gay wedge campaign in Ohio is going to hurt you.’”

In his view, the way to reach that day is to recognize that “the one third of America” stirred by pointing out the thousand-plus rights denied gay couples due to marriage inequality are already on the community’s side.

“Log Cabin is helping to shape a different lexicon—about the responsibilities we are willing to accept as American families,” Guerriero said. “That is what will move moderate and centrist Republicans. And that is my challenge to my progressive friends in the room, even though it might be slightly uncomfortable or awkward for us.”

Solmonese also emphasized the need to better reach out to portions of America not yet won over to the side of complete LGBT equality. He emphasized that HRC is doing extensive polling, with several key objectives in mind—to get a stronger handle on how Americans view gay and lesbian relationships and to anticipate the next wave of right-wing assaults on the community, specifically challenges to gay and lesbian adoption rights in targeted states.

“One of the things we found in our marriage equality research is that [Americans] want to extend us workplace equality, they want for there to be meaningful hate crimes legislation,” Solmonese explained. “But they are not seeing our relationships as being the same as straight relationships.”

Solmonese emphasized another key finding of HRC’s research and other polling—what he termed a significant shift in the public mood.

“We’ve got to be mindful of a shift in what I think is the mindset of this country away from fear and toward anger,” he said. “I think a lot of what happened in the 2004 election was our enemies all built their campaigns on the basis that the American people were afraid of their own shadow. There is a transition that has taken place that polling shows that people are more angry than afraid and how we handle that is going to be very important.”

Speaking for the Stonewall Democrats, Stern spoke aggressively about the need to take the battle to the right wing—in the form of Santorum’s reelection drive next year in Pennsylvania. Stern said that beyond the local priorities of its chapters in 38 states, the group would focus its national effort on the third ranking Senate Republican who has likened gay sex to bestiality. Reflecting on lessons learned from the intensive, but ultimately unsuccessful efforts waged last year by Democrats and independently controlled groups in support of the Kerry presidential campaign, Stern said that his group would build an effort in Pennsylvania centered only on the LGBT voter-rich Philadelphia and Pittsburgh markets and dedicated to building a permanent political structure.

“Last year, many groups made the mistake of sending consultants into states where they didn’t know the local turf,” Stern said. “We are committed to only hiring local organizers, who have relationships with the local county chairmen, with the local Sierra Club, who don’t need to form those relationships two weeks before the election.”

Guerriero was unwilling to play second fiddle to Stern in bashing Santorum, emphasizing that Log Cabin “does not write blank checks to the GOP, because we don’t want even one dollar to fall into the hands of Rick Santorum,” and that in 2004 the group contributed to fewer than 40 federal candidates nationwide.

“We are forming a brand new alliance with pro-environment, pro-choice, Main Street Republicans, and other groups who are quite frankly fed up watching theocrats taking over the Republican Party leadership,” Guerriero said. “When we poll, most Republicans are offended by the language used by their leadership on our issues. We need to figure out a way to have a bit of a civil war within our own party so that we at least have a reasonable centrist Republican alternative.”

Giske devoted her comments to highlighting how much progress gay Democrats have made in New York State and elsewhere in the Northeast, calling Senator Jon Corzine, New Jersey’s governor-elect, the most pro-gay chief executive in the nation, and noting the long standing support for marriage equality on the part of New York’s attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, the odds-on favorite for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

“In New York, the GOP [state] Senate majority will occasionally pass some pro-gay piece of legislation because they are afraid they will lose their seats,” she said. “Imagine that.”

One federal initiative on which the panel agreed progress might be possible is an end to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy that bars open gay or lesbian service, a move that the vast majority of Americans supports in polls. Though Solmonese and Guerriero lauded moderate Republican allies such as Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, who is up for reelection next year, both agreed that moving the debate would be more likely if they won the support of a prominent Republican senator with a strong national defense posture, such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia or Arizona’s John McCain.

“Without breaking the confidence of discussions we are having, we are talking to those caliber of U.S. senators about this,” Guerriero said. “We need a courageous Republican with military credentials like Chairman Warner or Senator McCain to step up to the plate and we are working really hard with the organizations represented here to make that happen.”

The November 10 panel was co-sponsored by FSIX, the Financial Services Industry Exchange, formerly the New York Bankers Group and the largest global networking and professional services group for LGBT financial services employees.

Cathy Renna, a former staff member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, who now works as a public relations consultant with Fenton Communications, moderated the panel.