From Beltway to the Trenches

Eric Stern, candidate Kerry’s gay czar, takes Stonewall fight to the heartland

Sounding a fiercely partisan note, the newly appointed executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, an organization of 100 chapters based in major cities and on college campuses, took full aim at Republican opponents on Tuesday, signaling his intention to capitalize on the unprecedented grass-roots mobilization of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered voters in the 2004 presidential to unseat Republican office holders in key battleground states.

Eric Stern said that Stonewall Democrats are gearing up for a 2006 push to “topple Sen. Santorum and send a message that there is a price to pay for anti-gay bigotry.”

Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate and a Bush stalwart who earned the opprobrium of gays by comparing gay sex with bestiality in a 2003 Associated Press interview, is one of the main Capitol Hill figures waging the uphill effort to amend the Constitution to bar same-sex marriage.

Stonewall’s board of directors announced the appointment in a press release that touted Stern’s organizational and political expertise.

“Eric maintains the capacity to build on the tremendous growth Stonewall has experienced in the past several years,” said Stephen Driscoll, board co-chair. “He has served our community well by working with activists beyond the Beltway to advance our national party’s support for equality.”

Stern indicated that in taking on Santorum, as well as other Republican office holders who have enacted policies inimical to the positions of gay advocates, Stonewall would utilize an extensive network of connections with labor unions, religious groups and other organizations seeking to reinstall a Democratic majority in the Congress.

Previously, Stern served as the Washington, D.C. head of LGBT outreach at the Democratic National Committee and he will take the reins at Stonewall on March 1. The group’s national headquarters is based in the nation’s capital.

Stern responded, “absolutely” when asked if he planned to travel extensively, adding that he hopes to undertake major-fund-raising drives in cities with large populations of gay and lesbian voters.

Typically, most of the nation’s gay and lesbian voters tend to pull the Democratic lever, but some exit polls, the validity of which political experts have debated, indicate that upwards of 25 percent of the gay electorate voted for Pres. George W. Bush’s re-election.

Stern’s job move comes as Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and failed presidential candidate, takes over as head of the Democratic National Committee after an unusually vigorous selection process in which the new chairman’s fiery partisanship and alignment with left-leaning segments of the party were vigorously debated by party leaders, including the minority leaders in Congress. Dean’s eventual victory was sealed by the overwhelming favor his candidacy found among state party leaders.

Stern demurred when asked if Dean’s election resulted in his own move to Stonewall, only saying that the organization and Dean share the same focus on mounting a Democratic comeback built on the strength of the party’s grass-roots organization.

“Having Howard Dean at the helm will help activate LGBT Democrats like never before,” said Stern.

Stern said that he plans to “do a lot of fund-raising and make Stonewall Democrats a player” in high-level decision making sessions with national Democratic leaders and elected officials. Stern said that local Stonewall chapters will avail themselves of the inroads built by the massive voter registration and get-out-the vote drives that were mobilized during an election season which nevertheless saw eleven states pass ballot initiatives to bar same-sex marriages in their constitutions.

When asked to specify where the Stonewall nation organization intends to focus, Stern mentioned Santorum in Pennsylvania and two upcoming gubernatorial races in seats now held by Democrats.

Stern said that activists are already on the ground working to ensure that Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, barred by term limits from seeking a third term, will be succeeded by fellow Democrat, Lt. General Timothy Kaine. In New Jersey, U.S. Sen. John Corzine has announced his intention to succeed Acting Gov. Richard Codey, a fellow Democrat, who stepped in when former Gov. James McGreevey resigned after he admitted to a sexual affair with a former male aide. The Garden State is home to a large community of gay and lesbian voters and is considered to have a politically progressive record of legislation on matters such as domestic partnerships and gay adoptions. Corzine, who generally receives high ratings from gay advocacy groups, is considered the clear front-runner against any of his potential Republican opponents.

Stern cautioned that the election strategy among gay Democrats for holding onto a northern seat, such as in New Jersey’s statehouse, might need to be modified in pushing to get Democrats elected in southern states like Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.

“We can’t have models that work in New York, or Maine or elsewhere in the Northeast and expect them to work in the South,” said Stern.

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