Enthusiastic LGBT Response to Obama's Veep Pick
By: PAUL SCHINDLER
Enthusiastic LGBT Response to Obama's Veep Pick
Advocates and Democratic Party activists from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community were uniform in their praise for Delaware Senator Joseph Biden's selection as Barack Obama's vice presidential candidate — even as some supporters of New York Senator Hillary Clinton voiced the lingering view that she might have proved the best addition to the national ticket.
“In selecting Senator Joe Biden as his running mate, Senator Obama has chosen a proven and effective advocate for fairness and equality that our entire community can be proud of,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's leading LGBT lobby, said in a written statement issued at 9 a.m. Saturday, just eight hours after the news first broke. “Senator Biden's record in the United States Senate is one of support and understanding that has been unwavering throughout his career.”
HRC noted in particular Biden's recent role in securing passage of a measure that enables the federal Department of Health and Human Services to remove, for the first time in 21 years, a general bar on the entry into the US of visitors and immigrants living with HIV.
The group's release documented its scorecard ratings on Biden spanning nine congressional sessions dating back to 1989, which averaged just under 85 percent, out of 100, in support of HRC objectives, and highlighted the Delaware Democrat's opposition to the federal marriage amendment and controversial Bush administration judicial appointments.
“It's a wonderful pick,” said Melissa Sklarz, a longtime transgender rights activist and former president of New York's Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats. Sklarz, who supported Clinton during the primaries and spoke to Gay City News from Denver, where she was attending the final session of the party's Rules Committee in advance of the convention, also noted Biden's leadership on issues related to the judiciary as well as on foreign policy.
Ethan Geto, who also supported Clinton and led the New York effort for Howard Dean in the 2004 primary season, said that Obama had three measures by which to evaluate potential running mates — helping him in a swing state, reinforcing his message of change, or bringing foreign policy experience to the ticket.
“Biden was an incredibly smart choice on that third criterion,” Geto said. “Obama is showing again his smarts as a politician.”
He added that Biden would also prove helpful in winning working class votes for the Democratic ticket.
“He grew up in a hardscrabble existence,” Geto said of Biden. “Without a silver spoon. He never made a lot of money. And from what I know of politics, he's that rare politician who did not leverage his position to make money.”
Corey Johnson, an Obama supporter and also a Rules Committee member, called Biden, “a solid pick. We as a community can't be anything but happy.”
Johnson noted that if the Illinois senator's aim was to buff up his foreign policy credentials, Biden was a far superior pick to another name prominently mentioned — former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, who as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 1993 bullied President Bill Clinton into backing away from his pledge to open up military service to openly gay and lesbian Americans.
“Especially with Nunn's name being floated out there as someone who could provide foreign policy and military expertise,” he said, the choice of the Delaware senator was a positive. “Obama filled those quote unquote gaps with Biden.”
Johnson added, “To have someone with Biden's strengths on foreign affairs joining Obama's call to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is very powerful.”
HRC's scorecard on Biden reflects the fact that he has been a friend to the LGBT community, if not always fully on the same page. In 1996, he was one of 85 senators who voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act.
In response to a 2007 questionnaire from HRC, Biden indicated that he believes legal same-sex unions deserve recognition by the federal government, a stance implicitly at odds with one of the two pillars of DOMA. He has not endorsed repeal of the other DOMA provision that allows states to deny recognition of such unions from outside their jurisdiction.
During this campaign, Obama called for outright repeal of DOMA. Fox News reported in 2003 that Biden, on its Sunday news program, said that legal marriage by same-sex couples was “inevitable,” but would come only “as part of the maturation process of the nation,” which would prove “an incredibly difficult thing for America to grapple with.”
On all the other issues identified in the 2007 HRC questionnaire, except for full civil marriage equality Biden embraced the positions favored by the organization. In the most recent scorecard issued by the group, for the 2005-2006 session, Biden scored an 89, out of 100, the same rating achieved by Obama and Clinton.
Each of the three voted against the federal marriage amendment, the appointments of Judge William Pryor and Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito, and an anti-choice provision tacked on to a piece of unrelated legislation. All three were co-sponsors of a measure to provide early treatment for HIV and of the hate crimes bill.
But, none of the three, to this day, has signed on as co-sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act, a proposal by Manhattan Congressman Jerrold Nalder and Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy that would allow the foreign same-sex partners of American citizens to achieve citizenship on parity with foreign different-sex spouses.
Nor has Biden signed on to a bill first introduced during the current session of Congresss, the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act of 2007, which would extend the full range of employee spousal benefits to the same-sex partner of federal workers. The bill introduced in the House by Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, an out lesbian Democrat, is sponsored by Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman. Twenty-two additional senators, including Obama and Clinton, are co-sponsors.
Biden, in responding to the 2007 HRC questionnaire, said flatly, “I would end Don't Ask, Don't Tell.” Asked by Gay City News, he also pledged to overturn the ban on consensual sodomy within the military service.
An April 2007 email to Gay City News from Biden's presidential campaign referred to “the Supreme Court's clear and unmistakable view in Lawrence that the sex lives of consenting adults are a private matter… [and that should] apply to every American, both civilian and military.”
The HRC press release on Saturday cited examples of Biden in 1990 standing up to the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who tried to insert language into a hate crimes measure saying, “the homosexual movement threatens the strength and survival of the American family” and that “state sodomy laws should be enforced.” He also opposed, as early as 1992, successful Republican efforts to repeal the District of Columbia's employee domestic partnership program.
Even as they praised the choice of Biden, several LGBT leaders said they thought Clinton was in fact the best veep choice Obama could have made.
“I still think Hillary could have been a strong addition to the ticket,” said Jeff Soref, who formerly served as as president of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, co-chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York's LGBT lobby, and later the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “But there was a risk that Hillary could have overshadowed the Obama part of the story. I don't think you want that kind of discussion during a presidential campaign.”
Soref, who also was once chair of the Democratic National Committee's LGBT Caucus, termed Biden “a fine pick. Maybe not one that's going to create lots of excitement and momentum.”
Soref added, “In recent years, he appears to be friendly if not a leader on LGBT issues.”
Sklarz also voiced the view that Clinton would have made a more compelling vice presidential choice.
“If I were Obama, I think I would have chosen Clinton,” she said. “But I reconciled my feelings about Hillary Clinton after she stepped down from the race. I figured Obama was going to choose the best person from his perspective. But I do think that Hillary Clinton is a great leader.”
Steven Latasa-Nicks, a Manhattanite who is the national co-chair of Obama Pride, the get-out-the-vote effort in the LGBT community, expressed confidence that the convention would “heal” wounds opened up during the primaries.
“Prominent folks from Clinton's campaign have reached out to me and said she personally told them she wants to see Barack Obama elected,” Latasa-Nicks said. “I am optimistic based on Clinton's statements and I take them at face value.”
He noted that Clinton has said that during the convention roll call vote that her camp pressed for during negotiations with the Obama team she plans to vote for the Illinois senator.
Geto offered a more pragmatic analysis of what will help achieve Democratic Party unity.
“It was never in the cards to pick Hillary. And any one paying attention knew that,” he said. “Obama has shown enormous respect to the Clintons regarding the convention schedule. I predict that both Hillary and Bill will make speeches with no double entendres, no wink-wink, speeches that are very laudatory of Obama. I think that if Hillary didn't do that it would be an enormous mistake for her future. The really senior Hillary people feel that it's incredibly in her interest to come out of this being seen knocking herself out to the point of exhaustion to campaign for Obama wherever he asks.”