Monday, March 27, 2006

Queer Dems Reluctantly Endorse Davis for Congress

Copyright @ 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Ordinarily a re-election endorsement for a popular Democratic Congressmember with a strong record of support for the Queer community would be a no-brainer for the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club, but the club’s endorsement of Susan Davis at its March 23 meeting was considerably closer and more reluctant than the final vote — 32 in favor, seven against — would indicate. Though she scored 97 points out of a possible 100 on the club’s issue’s questionnaire, the issue on which she fell short of the club’s position, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against Queers serving openly in the U.S. military, dominated the debate and helped lead 15 club members to vote against the earlier motion to make an endorsement in the race at all.

The controversy had actually started one month earlier, when attorney and former club official Bridget Wilson spoke to the group on February 23 and asked them not to make a routine “friendly incumbent” endorsement of Davis until she agreed to sign on as a co-sponsor to HR 1059. Called the “Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2005,” this bill would repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and instead forbid the military from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The bill does not mention gender identity, nor would it require that same-sex partners of servicemembers have the same rights to benefits as husbands or wives, but it would allow Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual people to serve in the U.S. military without having to conceal their sexual orientation.

At the February 23 meeting, Wilson explained that, contrary to popular belief, “’Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is not a law that lets you serve in the military if you’re Gay as long as you don’t talk about it. If you told your mother you were Gay and someone overheard it, that could be grounds for separation. ‘Sex’ is any physical contact engaged in for purposes any reasonable person could see as sexual gratification. There are pockets of relative tolerance, and then a new commanding officer comes in and thumps a Bible, and you’re in trouble.” Wilson said they were especially targeting Davis “because she’s worried about alienating veterans,” and she asked club members — especially ones who were themselves veterans — to write her and urge her to co-sponsor HR 1059.

The club agreed to defer considering Davis’s endorsement for a month and the issue came up again on March 23. Jeri Dilno, the club’s vice-president for political action, said Davis had returned the club’s questionnaire and had agreed with its positions on all issues except those relating to open service in the military and the California National Guard. In answer to the question, “Do you support permitting openly Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender people to serve in the armed forces?,” Davis answered neither yes or no, but wrote a two-paragraph response. She said that the two paragraphs would also apply to the question on whether to allow Queers to serve openly in the California National Guard. In answer to a question as to whether the government should penalize colleges and universities for allowing military recruiters on campus as long as the military still discriminates, Davis wrote, “Properly addressing the policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ could eliminate this concern.”

Davis’s two-paragraph answer on “don’t ask, don’t tell” began with a ringing statement of principle — “Differential treatment in the workplace should be based solely on an individual’s ability to do the job” — but then began to equivocate. “While I am told that lifting ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ may present a number of challenges within the military context, the DoD [Department of Defense] simply must be willing to work towards this goal,” Davis wrote. “If the immediate elimination of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ would have detrimental effects upon military readiness, as some have shared with me, then the DoD needs to find another way to start addressing this problem.”

“In 2004 I joined many of my Congressional colleagues in requesting a report from the Government Accountability Office that detailed the financial costs and impacts on military readiness,” Davis wrote — though there was no indication that the report had ever been made or, if it had been, what it had found. “I have heard from many constituents who support, and who oppose, this policy,” Davis continued. “Keeping in mind the unique nature of military service, facilities and billets, I have tried hard to listen to all sides. I have also consulted with military commanders for their personal insights.”

Former club president Craig Roberts defended Davis in the club’s endorsement debate. “I’ve known Susan for years and she has always voted for our community,” he said. “I appreciate the upset of people in the club that she is not taking the lead on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but I’m sure she will vote for the bill if and when it gets to the floor of the House.”

Jess Durfee, who succeeded Roberts as club president and is now the chair of the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee, also spoke out in favor of endorsing Davis. “We have already sent her a message by not giving her a friendly-incumbent endorsement,” he said. “We are a Democratic club. She is an incumbent Democratic Congressmember and our silence will resonate. We’ve got to support the Democrats in office.” Like Roberts, Durfee was optimistic that Davis will “come around” on the military discrimination issue.

But to other members, the language of Davis’s statement — particularly the part about “the unique nature of military service, facilities and billets” — seemed all too reminiscent of the debate about hammocks and showers that helped lead to President Clinton’s abandoning his 1992 campaign pledge to eliminate anti-Queer discrimination in the U.S. military and settling for “don’t ask, don’t tell” instead. Doug Case, another former club president still active in the group, bluntly called Davis’s statement “nothing less than an insult to this club.”

“I cannot tell you how disappointed I am in this Congressmember,” said Alex Sachs, the club’s legislative director. “I took four weeks off work for her and gave her more money than I’d given anyone else, and I’m not convinced she gets the message.” After complaining that Davis’s openly Gay chief of staff, Todd Gloria, had left the room before this discussion came up, Sachs admitted that he was going to vote for the endorsement anyway because Davis has been strongly supportive of the Queer community on other issues and could be counted on to vote against the proposed constitutional amendment to ban legal recognition of same-sex relationships anywhere in the U.S.

“Susan doesn’t not support HR 1059,” said Daniel Nava, an official with her campaign who was called on to speak and do damage control after the endorsement was approved. “She’s just taking a different route in order to support this piece of legislation. Of course she could just jump on [and co-sponsor it]. She’s taken tons and tons of heat from people for not jumping on as a supporter. … [But] what she’s doing is using her position on the House Armed Services Committee to bring to the table major members of the military community, and get their input, and to talk to them about things, and to be able to figure out their reasonings behind things.”

Nava claimed that Davis hoped “to bring these military commanders to the table and begin to convince them … that this ban is ridiculous, and that there’s no reason to be there. Then you’re actually going to have the type of groundswell that comes about from the military that could actually make this piece of legislation viable.” The club members were not impressed by this argument. Roberts asked Nava what had been the concrete results of these meetings so far, and Nava gave a long, rambling response that didn’t really answer the question. Larry Baza said that he wished Davis herself would come to a club meeting and answer the members’ questions directly.

When Nava said that Davis holds regular community meetings in the district which club members could attend and raise the issue with her, Alex Sachs replied that he’d done just that. Sachs said he’d met with Davis four or five years ago and “I encouraged her to take a leading role on the military personnel subcommittee in advocating for LGBT folks in uniform and those who are veterans, and I got a few platitudes. [She said] ‘Oh, yeah, of course, this is very important, this position that I have,’ and that was about all I ever heard. … I would like to see her take a more pro-active role in representing the LGBT community that is a large part of her constituency.”

The club also made a number of far less controversial endorsements. They voted to support Democrat Richard Barrera in his challenge to incumbent county supervisor Ron Roberts — a Republican whom the club had endorsed in his first race for supervisor in 1994, while the local Democratic party still allowed Democratic clubs to endorse Republicans in nonpartisan elections. The club voted to make Barrera’s challenge to Roberts a priority race — meaning it gets listed as such in the club’s voter guide and also the club makes a special effort to raise money and supply volunteers to that campaign.

The club also endorsed former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Kennan Kaeder for the District 2 seat on the San Diego City Council against Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who just won a special election for the seat, and to make his a priority race too. Other priority races for the club in this election cycle are Francine Busby’s candidacy in the special election to succeed former Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who resigned in disgrace after receiving $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors, and incumbent Congressmember Bob Filner, who’s being challenged in the June primary by moderate Democrat Juan Vargas.

Among the other endorsements the club voted March 23 were Ben Hueso for City Council District 8 — he won the recent special election in the district with over 70 percent of the vote and is running for the next full term for the seat — and Ron Oden, the openly Gay African-American mayor of Palm Springs, for the 80th District seat in the California State Assembly.