Taking the Fight To Brooklyn

Kerry Prevails Among Gay Dems in Park Slope

In a clear indication of the challenge facing former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in his hopes of using the New York primary on March 2 to keep him in the game for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Lambda Independent Democrats (LID), Brooklyn’s 26-year-old club for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists, endorsed Massachusetts Senator John Kerry at a meeting held January 26.

According to Alan Fleishman, a longtime LID member who is a Democratic district leader in Park Slope and until this week had supported the former Vermont governor, there had been a “virtual lockdown for Dean” within the club until Kerry out-polled him by 18 points in the Iowa caucuses on January 19.

The Lambda vote was roughly two to one for Kerry over Dean.

In the wake of the New Hampshire primary the day after the LID vote, Fleishman decided to change his endorsement to Kerry.

Ethan Geto, a longtime gay activist who is the chair of Dean’s New York State campaign and went before LID personally to pitch his candidate’s case, said he was “very disappointed” but also took aim at Fleishman.

“I think we had ostensibly a very influential supporter in the club,” Geto said in an interview January 28. “Not only did I discover today that he is now going for Kerry, but I since learned that he did not do a very strong job of pressing Dean’s case as he pledged to do… I consider it somewhat unprofessional. I was taken aback.”

Geto suggested that Fleishman, eager to win appointment as an at-large delegate to the national convention, chosen by the state party, not by the voters, “may think Kerry is a better horse.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Fleishman responded when told of Geto’s charges. “I petitioned for Howard Dean. I placed delegates on the ballot for Howard Dean. Ethan ought to listen to what the members of Lambda were saying to him… A lot of people believe Howard Dean is not going to be the nominee.”

Fleishman called Geto’s appeal on behalf of Dean at the club’s meeting “less than convincing.”

The reversal in Dean’s fortunes at Lambda came at a time when his national campaign is scrambling to adjust to two consecutive double digit defeats in states where he had long held a commanding poll position. At a campaign rally held in lower Manhattan on January 11, Geto and other Dean supporters including U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler and members of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats (GLID) described the New York primary as a firewall against any stumbles the campaign might suffer in the early contests. Dean won early and widespread support from gay and lesbian political activists in New York, including GLID, the Stonewall Democrats, State Sen. Thomas K. Duane, and City Councilmember Philip Reed.

The Lambda endorsement raised the question of whether the gay political community, like other voting blocs, were rethinking their earlier enthusiasm for Dean’s outsider appeal.

Geto was not the only high profile politico to make the trip to Park Slope to speak at Lambda on behalf of their candidate. Kerry was represented by former Public Advocate Mark Green, narrowly defeated for mayor in 2001, former Manhattan state Sen. Catherine Abate, and Fred Hochberg, who recently became dean of the New School’s Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy and was one of the highest ranking out gay officials in the Clinton administration.

Green did most of the talking in representing Kerry and emphasized the Massachusetts senator’s credentials as a “fighter,” noting that in his 1996 reelection race against then Gov. William Weld, the incumbent was 15 points behind until the two men engaged in a series of seven televised debates. Hochberg also mentioned the Weld race, pointing out that even as he trailed in the polls, Kerry was the only U.S. senator up for re-election to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Abate mentioned that in 1985, his first year in the Senate, Kerry introduced a broad civil rights bill for gays and lesbians, which has since been narrowed into the still-pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Former Brooklyn City Councilmember Sal Albanese, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1997, appeared on behalf of former General Wesley Clark. He explained that he adopted a litmus test of only supporting candidates who have taken a consistent position against what he termed “the misadventure in Iraq,” and noticed that, as a former military commentator on television, Clark passed muster. Further emphasizing the political novice’s progressive appeal, Albanese pointed to endorsements of Clark by U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, former Mayor David Dinkins, and George McGovern, the party’s 1972 anti-war presidential nominee.

Speaking for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Bronx City Councilmember Oliver Koeppel emphasized his candidate’s “positive” campaign, and the fact that every Democrat elected president in the past 40 years––Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton––were Southerners. He alternately described Edwards as a progressive and a liberal, and said that when the North Carolina senator appeared before a group of wealthy Manhattan donors the day after the Iowa caucuses, he hewed to his “two Americas” theme.

Koeppel argued that Edwards is as strong as any candidate on LGBT issues, but would not speak out for gay marriage, “a political position that could in fact end his campaign.”

Two young activists, Danielle Feris and Jim Kroener, spoke for Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and emphasized that on a host of progressive issues––same-sex marriage, universal health care, and a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq––their candidate had gone the full distance in contrast with the leading contenders. Implicitly acknowledging that Kucinich would not win the nomination, Feris said, “The primary is the time to say this is what we want our party to look like. Help us get delegates to that convention that speak this language.”

For his part, Geto opened his argument by addressing the issue of electability, which has become a buzzword for those questioning whether Dean can make a strong race against George W. Bush, but quickly moved to a detailed comparison of his candidate’s views on LGBT issues versus those of his opponents.

“I believe very strongly that Dean is by far the most electable candidate, but that’s not what I am going to talk about,” Geto said.

As he began to delve into LGBT issues, Geto issued a stern warning about how Republicans would exploit cultural divides in America during the campaign.

“We are going to face the most intense year in the gay rights struggle this year in this presidential year than we have in a long time,” he said. “The Bush-Karl Rove team are going to use the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of the family and say that the Democratic candidates are threatening the basic institutions of this society… The Rove strategy is to take gay rights and make it one of the top two or three issues that they’re going to go on the offensive about, and they are going to start those commercials in about a month.”

Then, driving home the salience of this observation, Geto added, “Howard Dean will do a much superior job in standing up for this community.”

Geto ticked off a list of Dean’s accomplishments on gay rights issues––including the 1992 nondiscrimination law in Vermont, a 1994 law protecting students from harassment based on sexual orientation, and a hate crimes measure that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Pointing out that Vermont was among the first states, if not the first, to adopt each of these measures, Geto added that it was also a leader in adding questions about sexual orientation to its annual youth risk behavior surveys.

Geto noted that in calling for a repeal of DOMA and supporting federal recognition of Massachusetts and Canadian marriages, Dean had gone further than the other leading Democrats.

Geto took specific aim at Kerry and Clark. The Massachusetts senator, he said, often talks about marriage as a sacred, religious institution based on procreation in terms that “you usually hear from the fundamentalist Christian right.” Geto charged that Clark, in a radio interview on Sirius Radio’s OutQ, backed away from taking on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, saying, “We’ve got to leave it to the generals, to the military and the Pentagon. We cannot pursue that.”

“Howard Dean pushed the envelope this year and made the other candidates, including John Kerry, take a lot more time, which they haven’t been comfortable with, focusing on gay rights,” Geto argued. “I think Dean will stand up on our issues and not run away and not be mealy mouthed, and not start modifying his positions on gay rights… All the other candidates have sort of backed off their efforts.”

In the end, however, the new-found momentum in the Kerry camp carried the day at Lambda.

According to Hochberg, the Kerry victory is indicative of “a new focus on who is going to be the best candidate to beat Bush in November.” Comparing the mood among a gay crowd that he spoke to in Iowa as he campaigned for Kerry there with the mood at Lambda a week after the caucuses, Hochberg said he noticed a shift away from Dean.

In contrast, Geto remains upbeat in spite of the results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Geto argued that Dean remains the favorite both in New York and California, the two big prizes from Super Tuesday on March 2, and cited a January 13 poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion that shows Dean ahead of the pack with 26 percent, and Kerry with only six percent. He added, that Dean would likely win at least one contest next Tuesday when seven states vote, and would also do well in other February contests in Michigan, Washington State, and Minnesota.

Dan Tietz, LID’s president, who is a longtime Kerry supporter, insisted that “the momentum is with Kerry,” but was willing to offer Dean some grudging admiration.

“John Kerry should send Howard Dean a note thanking him for getting him motivated,” he said.

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