Pride Agenda Hosts Pro-Marriage Senator

When playwright Tony Kushner introduced U.S. Senator Russell D. Feingold at the Fall Dinner, the annual fundraiser benefiting the Empire State Pride Agenda, he did little more than read a list of all the progressive positions held by the senator.

Feingold voted against the war in Iraq and wants to set a timetable to pull American troops out of that quagmire. He wants guaranteed healthcare for every American and increased government funding for alternative energy sources.

But the standing ovation for Feingold probably came because he supports gay marriage and the Wisconsin Democrat opposes an amendment to that state’s constitution that would ban such marriages. He opposes the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell policy and he backs a federal bill that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment.

“I am so proud to be here tonight,” Feingold said at the October 5 event. Then he fed some red meat to the crowd, better known perhaps for its generosity toward the Pride Agenda than its devotion to the intricacies of federal government policy.

“We oppose the mistake that the Iraq war was and is,” he said. Then Feingold went after the Bush administration for its warrantless wiretapping of Americans. “Illegal wiretapping is wrong,” he said. “The president should be censured at a minimum.”

Feingold, who has been in the U.S. Senate since 1992, is considering a run for president in 2008. But can someone who leans as far to the left as Feingold win in the U.S.? Will Americans back a candidate who supports gay marriage?

“I think supporting marriage equality shows people that you’re willing to take a strong stand and get ahead of what will be history and be part of trying to do the right thing,” Feingold told reporters following his speech. “I think it shows people that you’re willing to put aside obvious political dangers and you’re willing to say, ‘This is just right, I believe in it.’”

Forty-one states have banned gay marriage and 20 of those have done that through ballot initiatives that passed overwhelmingly. Given the antipathy voters expressed toward gay marriage, they may not respond positively to a candidate who supports it. Feingold does not see it that way.

“They were saying they wanted to do that, but that doesn’t mean they would reject a person who disagrees with them on that,” Feingold said. “They were forced to go and vote on that. I don’t think a lot of people thought it was that big of an issue.”

His argument to those voters would be that there are more pressing issues that a President Feingold would attend to, such as universal healthcare or reducing the cost of home heating oil.

“I think it’s a mistake to assume that the same person who votes for a gay marriage amendment in their state would necessarily vote against a candidate who says this isn’t the most important issue,” Feingold said. Such amendments are “a distraction” and “wrong,” he said, “but let’s talk about what really matters to people.”

Feingold said he has not yet made up his mind on a presidential run.

“I am so focused on these elections, trying to change the Congress,” he said. “I’ve been in the U.S. Senate for the past 14 years and the past 12 years we’ve been in the minority in the Senate for all but 18 months. We’ve been a minority in the House the whole time. I have really focused in the last two years on trying to get a progressive majority and I think there’s a real possibility of that.”

So far in the 2006 election cycle, Feingold’s Progressive Patriots Fund, a political action committee, has distributed $120,600 to 51 U.S. Senate or House candidates, all Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats could win majorities in both houses because Republicans “appear incompetent, dishonest, and corrupt,” Feingold said. Will we see a progressive majority on Capitol Hill November 8?

“I think there’s going to be a Democratic majority in one or both houses and it will be certainly a more progressive majority than we have now, but there will be much more work to be done in the coming years to make it a truly a progressive majority,” Feingold said. “It would only be a first step. It certainly will not be as progressive as I would like, but I think there will be many more progressives.”

Feingold said that the number of progressives had decreased since he first arrived in Washington.

“Of course it sometimes depends on the issue, but I would say we could use an uptick, a substantial uptick, in the number of people who are consistently progressive,” he said. “There were far more when I first came to the U.S. Senate who voted consistently that way. It’s gotten pretty lonely.”

While that might suggest that voters have generally moved away from a progressive agenda and would reject such a candidate for president, Feingold does not think so.

“I think the country is ready for dramatically different vision of the future,” Feingold said. “I don’t think they want Democrat or Republican lite… I think what they want is a new vision of this diverse, wonderful country and the potential to bring out powerful voting blocs from all kinds of people around the country, as well as young people, who will be driven by an effective progressive candidacy whether it’s Al Gore or me or somebody else.”

Though emphasizing that a presidential run is not a sure thing, Feingold certainly appears to be gearing up for one. His fund has paid for his travel to give speeches in 17 states. While he praised others who are mentioned as possible presidential contenders, such as Gore, the former vice president, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York’s junior U.S. senator, Feingold also drew a clear line between them and himself.

“It has to do with the willingness to take the tough stands and of all the people that you’ve mentioned and of all the people that are being considered for president, there’s only one person who actually voted against the Iraq war and actually voted against the USA Patriot Act and was the first person to propose a timetable to bring the troops out of Iraq,” he said.