Task Force Concerned about Hagel at Defense Department, Citing LGBT, Women’s, People of Color Record

Former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel.

President Barack Obama is widely reported to be leaning toward former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a two-term Republican, to be his next secretary of defense, succeeding Leon Panetta, despite Hagel’s record of voting against LGBT rights, women’s reproductive rights, and issues of concern to people of color.

During his Senate career, Hagel received ratings as low as zero from both the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and NARAL-Pro-Choice America and an 11 percent rating from the NAACP.

LGBT groups, many of which have a close working relationship with the Obama White House, are starting to express concern about Hagel, though some are avoiding the issue. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has come out with the strongest statement to date.

Stacey Long, NGLTF’s director of public policy and government affairs, wrote in an email, “Despite former Senator Chuck Hagel’s early criticism of the war in Iraq after voting to authorize it, we are gravely concerned about his track record on civil rights and opposition to LGBT equality while a member of the Senate. Cabinet choices help set the tone for an administration, and we believe it is critical that those members support the values of respect, inclusiveness, and the belief in a level playing field for all –– and that includes for LGBT people and women in general. We are very concerned that someone with such a poor record on these issues is under consideration to become secretary of defense. We are making our concerns known to the administration.”

Allyson Robinson, the new executive director of OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the nation’s largest association of LGBT military personnel, fired a more cautious shot, saying in a statement, “We expect that anyone being considered by the president for the secretary of defense post would embrace one of the signature accomplishments of this administration –– the repeal of ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ –– and would be prepared to demonstrate his or her firm commitment to fairness and equality for our nation's men and women in uniform. Finishing the work of repeal –– and the important next steps toward achieving equality in the military –– need to happen during the tenure of the next secretary of defense. Should he become the secretary, we would look forward to working with Senator Hagel to achieve the president’s priorities for our nation’s armed forces.”

The Washington Blade, on December 14, reported that Republicans in the House of Representatives are pushing for what they call a “conscience protection” clause that would allow members of the armed services to express their “sincerely held moral principles and religious beliefs” regarding “the appropriate and inappropriate expression of human sexuality” without fear of adverse personnel action. The newspaper wrote that critics of such language –– championed by lame duck Missouri Republican Todd Akin, who lost his Senate bid after inflammatory comments about “legitimate rape” –– warn such a clause could protect service members who harass gay and lesbian soldiers in their ranks.

Asked how well suited Hagel was to handle the ongoing LGBT rights issues facing the Defense Department, R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, focused instead on the former senator’s military credentials and on his fidelity to Republican positions.

Speaking for himself and not for LCR, Cooper wrote in an email, “I recall working with Senator Chuck Hagel and his staff during the Bush administration and he was certainly not shy about expressing his criticisms. But despite his criticisms, Hagel voted with us most of the time and there was no question he was committed to advancing America's interests abroad. As for his nomination to be secretary of defense, it is well worth noting that Senator Hagel is a combat veteran who has hands-on experience in the field. The battlefield is not just theory for him.”

HRC and NARAL have yet to say whether they have concerns about Hagel succeeding Panetta, despite both groups having given him ratings of zero.

While Senator John Kerry was seen as a likely successor to Panetta, the withdrawal of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice from consideration to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made the Massachusetts Democrat the likely pick for State –– the job he really wants –– increasing the prospects for a Hagel nomination to Defense.

Hagel, now 66, was in the Senate from 1997-2009, and so missed the 2010 vote on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal.

Asked in 2003 about an amendment to the US Constitution barring same-sex marriage, Hagel told the Omaha World Herald, “I don’t think the Constitution was ever written or set up for those kinds of amendments. I think those kinds of issues are better off left to the states.” But he voted for it anyway the following year. He switched his vote when the issue resurfaced in 2006, but maintained his opposition to same-sex marriage.

Hagel repeatedly voted against adding sexual orientation to the federal hate crimes law and opposed set-asides for minority and women-owned businesses.

While Hagel has a reputation as a maverick among Republicans and has sometimes complained about his party’s move to the extreme right –– going so far as to remain neutral in the 2008 presidential campaign and to endorse Democrat Bob Kerrey in his unsuccessful Senate bid from Nebraska this year –– he has an 85 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.

Hagel’s name was floated as a possible running mate for Obama in 2008 and he was later appointed co-chair of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

In response to questions to the White House press office on whether it mattered to the president that Hagel had a long record of opposition to civil rights, Shin Inouye, a spokesman, wrote in an email, “I have no personnel announcements to make.”

Similarly, Hagel’s office at Georgetown University, where he is distinguished professor in the Practice of National Governance, also refused comment on his possible nomination or on whether he has changed the views that earned him low ratings from LGBT and other civil rights groups.

Obama considered Hagel for Defense in 2008 before persuading Republican Robert Gates to stay on from the Bush administration. At the time, Ilan Goldenberg of the National Security Network wrote in the New Republic, “Appointing a Republican as secretary of defense could send a message that Democrats are still too uncomfortable with the military to take on the responsibility of defending our country by themselves. Moreover, there's no reason not to appoint a Democrat. The party has a deep defense bench that includes military and defense advisors for the Obama and Clinton campaigns — many of whom have served in the Pentagon in previous administrations.”

Cenk Uygur of the progressive talk radio show, The Young Turks, wrote on the Huffington Post, “If I was voting for the Chuck Hagel I hear, I would vote for him for president. If I was voting for the Chuck Hagel I see on the record, he'd be the very last person in Congress I would ever vote for.”

Uygur wrote that in 2006 that Hagel’s voting record was “abysmal” and that “there was not one senator who voted with the Bush administration more than Chuck Hagel” –– 95 percent of the time.

Hagel is drawing fire, as well, from conservative quarters, not only for his criticism of the Iraq War and his recent flirtations with Democrats, but also for what some see as his insufficient support for Israel, particularly on the threat that nation sees from Iran.