Tout Stances on Gays
Edwards, others court gay voters
News & Observer, May 12, 2003
Box 191, Raleigh, NC 27602
By John Wagner, Washington Correspondent
ATLANTA—On the presidential
campaign trail, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean touts a law he signed allowing
civil unions for gays and lesbians. U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a
decorated Vietnam veteran, makes it known that he thinks gays should be
allowed to serve in the military.
And on Saturday night, Sen. John Edwards voiced his
support for adoptions by gay parents during a keynote address at a black-tie
dinner that drew 1,300 people to a downtown hotel here.
“I was raised to believe ... in an America that
embraces everybody,” the North Carolina Democrat said at the event held by
the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights group. His speech
also included calls for greater workplace protections and stepped-up efforts
to find an AIDS vaccine.
With nine Democrats seeking their party’s presidential
nomination, the courting of the gay voter is under way as never before. It is
partly a reflection of a changing American culture and partly an
acknowledgment of political reality.
Exit polls from the 2000 presidential election showed
that 4 percent of voters were gay and that close to three-quarters of them
voted for Al Gore, the Democratic candidate. In the 2004 Democratic primaries,
their influence could prove pivotal, activists argue.
“In a crowded race or a close race, an energized and
mobilized constituency can make a real difference,” said Dave Noble,
executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, a group that promotes
the agenda of gays within the party. “Right now, we’ve got so many
different candidates going after the community, and there’s not one
candidate the community has settled upon.”
President Bill Clinton made history in 1992 by openly
courting gay voters, and the two major Democratic candidates followed suit in
2000, despite concerns that doing so could alienate swing voters in the
general election, particularly in the South.
This cycle, several candidates, including Edwards,
already have hired staff members to advise them on gay issues. And U.S. Rep.
Richard Gephardt of Missouri has said his daughter, Chrissy, will be an
ambassador to gay groups. She is a lesbian.
“The gay community has become one of the constituencies
you have to meet to be a viable Democrat,” said Steve Elmendorf, a top
adviser to Gephardt’s campaign.
The jockeying for position was evident earlier this month
in South Carolina when the nine candidates met for a debate in Columbia. The
candidates tried to one-up each other on their gay-rights credentials and
universally condemned anti-sodomy laws as an invasion of privacy.
That latter issue also offered Democrats a chance to
contrast their views with that of U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania
Republican who made national headlines recently by comparing gay sex to incest
When Kerry’s record on gay rights was questioned during
the debate, he rattled off several gay-friendly positions he’d taken in
recent years, including support for gays serving in the military and
sponsorship of hate-crimes legislation.
“My position in fact is stronger than Governor
Dean’s,” he said.
Dean’s signing of Vermont’s civil-unions law is among
the reasons gay issues are getting so much attention in the race’s early
The law was prompted by a 1999 decision by the Vermont
Supreme Court that declared unconstitutional the state’s denial of marriage
benefits to gay and lesbian couples. After a highly emotional battle, the
legislature created a parallel system of civil unions, which conferred many of
the same benefits to gay couples without the religious overtones of marriage.
Though Dean did not champion the law at the time, his
decision to sign it in 2000 has allowed him to cast himself as a path-breaker
on gay rights on the presidential campaign trail.
It also has prompted other Democrats to spell out their
Six of the nine candidates have endorsed the idea of
civil unions, though most won’t go as far to say they support gay marriage.
During his Saturday night speech in Atlanta, Edwards did
not explicitly address civil unions, though he apparently was referring to the
subject when he said “not every one of us will agree on every single
During his 1998 Senate race, Edwards said he was opposed
to gay marriage. Although he does not object to states’ recognizing civil
unions, he continues to have reservations about both gay marriage and civil
unions, Edwards’ campaign spokeswoman, Jennifer Palmieri, said Sunday.
“It’s an issue he thinks the country—and North
Carolina—is not ready for,” Palmieri said.
Pushing for the establishment of civil unions now could
undercut efforts to fight workplace discrimination and expand other rights for
gays, she said.
Among the rights Edwards strongly backed Saturday is
allowing gay couples to adopt children.
“In a world where far too many children are neglected
or unwanted, we need to encourage responsible, loving adults to raise
children, which is why I support the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt
children,” he said to great applause.
Earlier, Edwards mentioned that his two youngest children
often play in Washington with the toddlers of Elizabeth Birch, the Human
Rights Campaign’s executive director, and her partner, Hillary Rosen, a
lobbyist for the recording industry.
“It’s given me a chance at a very personal level to
see what extraordinary parents they are and what a terrific family they
are,” Edwards said.
Although such views may be warmly received in Democratic
circles, Edwards seems certain to get flak in North Carolina for his efforts
to court the gay community, particularly if he reins in his ambitions and
seeks re-election to his Senate seat in 2004.
If Edwards runs for the Senate, “you can sure this will
be brought up,” said Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It gives some ammunition to
people. I think it’s probably less of a big deal that it used to be, but
there are still people here who are uncomfortable with this. ... They see
[homosexuality] as a sin.”
It’s unclear how many of those people would be inclined
to vote for Edwards in any case, Beyle added.
In a similar vein, the Democratic presidential nominee
risks losing some support among swing voters in the South who could be turned
off by his courting of gay voters in the primaries, analysts say.
Campaign strategists downplay that potential.
“It’s over-rated as a general election liability,”
said Elmendorf, the Gephardt adviser. “In 1992, Clinton got people past the
notion that if you’re pro-gay rights, it will kill you in the South.”
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