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How Dems Can Win

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With an eye on the state Democratic presidential primary this month, we asked community activists and allies to opine on ways to regain the White House.

By Christopher Curtis

With the death toll in Iraq exceeding 500 American lives, with no weapons of mass destruction found, and an economy that has seen 2.2 million payroll jobs disappear since 2000, Democrats believe they have a strong chance of beating a president whose job approval numbers were once some of the highest in American history.

In fact some polls at press time showed voters more likely to vote for either Democratic front-runner and Massachusetts senator John Kerry or number two-running candidate and North Carolina senator John Edwards over incumbent George W. Bush.

But then the highest court in Kerry’s home state ruled that same-sex couples deserved marriage rights, causing several Democratic analysts and leaders to worry that the latest battle over gay and lesbian rights will hijack their chance of winning the White House in 2004.

“Dems will have to walk a tight rope on the marriage issue,” admitted Randall Ellis, executive director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, in a recent interview. “It appears that the Republicans want this issue to be at the forefront of the campaign so as to activate the religious right so that they will vote and give money to the Republican Party.

“The Democrats would do best by taking the conservative route and stand firm that this is an issue left up to the states and that it should remain that way.”

Clarence Burton Bagby, a former president of the Houston Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus, said he believes Democrats can win this election if they stick to the middle ground. “Democrats must continue to frame the discussions about gay marriage in terms of civil rights. Senator Kerry has been doing an excellent job of this so far.”

But while Kerry is on record for supporting GLBT civil rights, he does not support same-sex marriage. After Massachusetts’ highest court ruled that same-sex couples deserved to be married, Kerry said he felt differently. “I believe the right answer is civil unions,” Kerry said in a February 4 statement. “I oppose gay marriage.”

Dag Vega, a spokesperson for Kerry, talked to OutSmart about Kerry’s position. “I think the gay/lesbian community is aware that there’s no comparison between John Kerry and George Bush. Kerry will fight for gay and lesbian couples to get the same rights—from hospital visitation to inheritance—that heterosexual couples have. That’s why he’s a firm believer in civil unions.”

Eric Stern, director of GLBT outreach for the Democratic National Committee, asserted that if the Republicans lean too far to the right, their efforts to turn out the vote could backfire. “At the 1992 RNC convention, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan railed against Americans whose views differed from those of social conservatives, saying there was a cultural war to be waged for the soul of America,” Stern recalled. “The speech tarred Republicans as the party of intolerance and was a factor in Clinton’s victory that year.

“With a cohesive, clear message of opposition to this constitutional amendment and support for extending federal rights to gay and lesbian voters, we will not only hold on to the 4.2 million gays who voted for Gore in 2000, but will win a significant share of the more than 1.1 million gay voters who voted for Bush in 2000,” Stern said. “Gay conservative leaders have already come very close to indicating that they will not support Bush in 2004 if he explicitly supports the amendment.”

Shari Goldsberry, president of the Houston chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, concedes that the GOP has shifted too far to the right. “The president should remember that although the religious right is important for votes, the core of the party are fiscal conservatives and small-business owners,” Goldsberry said. “Without somehow speaking to those of us less interested in government intervention into social issues, I doubt the president will be in the Oval Office next year.”

But Goldsberry asserted that the Democrats won’t be able to win “if their only message centers upon the perceived failures of the current administration and the state of the nation.

“They must articulate a message which promotes their specific vision of how they will lead in the future on issues most important to all Americans and what they expect to accomplish. This is a real problem with the current batch of Democratic candidates. They seem to be a group of professional naysayers bereft of ideas and vision.”

No matter who runs against Bush, former state representative Glen Maxey, who was the first openly gay Texas legislator and who served as state coordinator for the now-scuttled Howard Dean campaign, scoffed at the idea of any homosexual supporting Bush for re-election.

“Give me a friggin’ break,” Maxey wrote in an e-mail. “Any GLBT person who would vote for George Bush over any of the possible Democratic nominees is an idiot, in my opinion. Years ago, people would joke that a gay person voting for a Republican presidential candidate was like a Jew voting for Hitler. A decade ago I thought that was over the top. In 2004, I now agree.”

Even if GLBT voters turn out to support the leading Democratic candidate, the current president of the Houston Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus, Kenneth N Jones, M.D., isn’t sure it will make much of a difference. “In light of the Electoral College, I do not believe that we can have much impact on the presidential election. However, we can have a great effect locally. If every GLBT person in Houston would vote for their local GLBT-friendly candidates, the resulting legislature would be much less willing to amend the federal or state constitution.”

Community activist Ray Hill seems to agree that GLBT voters won’t have much impact by themselves when it comes to deciding between Kerry and Bush. “Nonetheless, as a voting population, GLBT voters have one strength no other group enjoys. We can multiply our voting strength anytime we wish. All we have to do is ask our neighbors and relatives to please vote for candidates supportive of our issues. It is kind of a stealth capacity, rarely used but always there.”

Former state representative Debra Danburg, who fought to have the Homosexual Conduct Law thrown out while she served in the legislature, agrees voter turnout is important, but also believes something else is key to winning a race against a Republican.

“Since there are more of us than there are of them,” she said, “all we have to do is: 1) get our voters to the polls in the same high percentages that they do, and 2) make sure they don’t cheat.”

Christopher Curtis, who contributes regularly to Gay.com, also interviewed Human Rights Campaign executive director Cheryl Jacques for this issue.

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