Task Force Honors Tom Daschle

Former South Dakota senator feted for role in killing federal marriage amendment

At its 16th annual Leadership Awards, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the nation’s oldest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights and advocacy organization, honored former U.S. Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle—who was defeated for reelection in South Dakota last fall—for his role earlier last year in beating back the Federal Marriage Amendment. The amendment would have defined marriage throughout the U.S. as only the union between a man and a woman.

The Task Force event was held Monday evening at New York University.

Democrat Charles Schumer, New York’s senior senator who was a featured speaker at the event, heralded Daschle’s efforts, saying that he not only defeated the amendment but “put a dagger through its heart.” Democrats needed only 34 votes to block the amendment last July, but the measure’s Republican supporters were unable to muster even a simple majority.

Daschle was also applauded by long-time gay activist David Mixner, who recently moved to New York from California. Mixner recalled a gathering last summer at the home of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy intended to raise money for Democrats up for reelection who stood up to the marriage amendment drive. Speaking about his leadership in killing the amendment, Daschle, at that event, said, “If I lose my seat because of this, so be it.”

“That is courageous,” Mixner said, with evident emotion.

Same-sex marriage posed a tricky issue for Daschle in his hard-fought, but unsuccessful run against Republican challenger John Thune, who had been South Dakota’s only House member. At the Task Force gathering, Daschle explained that he was moved by the fact that the constitutional amendment drive represented the first effort in 200 years to use the Constitution to deny rights, rather than expand them. Polls in his home state show that about three-quarters of the population oppose same-sex marriage and South Dakota has a law limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. The federal constitutional effort, in Daschle’s view, was gratuitous, though he did support the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed into law by former Pres. Bill Clinton.

Thune used the amendment, coupled with Dashcle’s earlier pro-DOMA vote, as a way to corner the incumbent politically, saying he needed to “put up or shut up and this was his opportunity to do that and he clearly went against the prevailing view of the people of South Dakota.” An independent conservative group, Your Fired, formed to oppose Daschle’s reelection, similarly pointed to inconsistencies in the Democrat’s stance on gay marriage and likened him to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, as a fellow flip-flopper.

Daschle is not expressing any regrets on the matter.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said Monday evening. “I believed we really could win this. This is why you get elected to the Senate, to rise to the occasion and do what you are supposed to do. It would have been the first time Congress would have written discrimination into our Constitution.”

In his remarks, Daschle opened with a broad range of criticisms about the Bush administration before launching into the issue of gay marriage.

“We have a stagnant economy and an insurgency that gets worse by the day,” he said. Later in his remarks he said he was “honored to be with a group of American heroes that fights everyday against intolerance.”

Daschle put his opposition to the marriage amendment into historical context.

“Slaves were told they were two-thirds of a person and there was a time when people of different races couldn’t get married,” he said.

Daschle’s message, while generally hopeful, also took note of how far the struggle for equal rights still has to travel. He drew attention to comments made last week by Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who said gay and lesbian people upset with that state’s upcoming referendum on a constitutional bar on gay marriage should consider moving elsewhere.

Rea Carey, the Task Force’s deputy executive director, also noted the risks inherent in the progress being achieved in some quarters today.

“The next three to five years will determine if we will win full equality in 10 to 15 years or if it will take another four decades or more,” she said.

In comments after the event, Schumer offered a more upbeat assessment on an immediate political question—the debate over eliminating the right to filibuster judicial nominees put forward by Pres. George W. Bush. Though several of the most conservative judges—including William Pryor, the harshly anti-gay former Alabama attorney general—have won approval under the compromise reached by a bipartisan group of 14 senators, Schumer said he is confident that five of the seven Republicans who signed onto that deal will stand firm against any effort by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to employ the so-called nuclear option. By that math, only one additional Republican moderate vote would be needed to protect the right to filibuster against other hard-right nominees, including any appointed to the Supreme Court.

Daschle himself concluded his remarks on an optimistic note, telling the Task Force audience, “We are on the right side of history and will continue to make history too.”

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