Friday, November 30, 2007

Queer Democrats Fail to Endorse for President


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Club-endorsed City Council District 1 candidate Sherri Lightner

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club met on Thursday, November 29 and failed to endorse in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination — not surprisingly, given the depth of the Democratic field and the intensity with which many members have already committed to one candidate or another. But the club did pass a resolution expressing disappointment in veteran Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein for her votes to confirm Michael Mukasey as attorney general and Leslie Southwick as a federal judge, and it also endorsed a Democrat, Sherri Lightner, for the District One seat on the San Diego City Council.

Instead of inviting representatives of each Presidential campaign to make presentations about their candidate, the club’s vice-president for political action, Jeri Dilno, suggested that club members themselves speak in support of their chosen candidates. Dilno, who chaired the meeting due to the illness of club president Andrea Villa, asked the members to agree to some changes in the club’s normal endorsement rules. Speakers weren’t supposed to attack other candidates but only speak positively about the virtues of their own choice. Ironically, the club almost didn’t debate the Presidential race at all; before it can consider which candidate to endorse the club must first vote on whether or not to make an endorsement, and the motion to endorse a candidate for the Presidential nomination passed by just three votes, 18 to 15.

Gloria Johnson, who was president of the club in the late 1970’s and has been active with it ever since, spoke for Hillary Clinton. “I’ve waited for a qualified woman candidate for President for 35 years — and for one who can be elected,” she said. “Hillary is the only candidate who has a full-time LGBT [Queer] outreach person, Mark Walsh, on her staff. Hillary isn’t afraid of us.”

Craig Roberts, another former club president, also endorsed Clinton. “She’s the farthest from what we have now,” he said — meaning President Bush. “She knows her way around the White House. National Stonewall Democrats [the nationwide organization of Queer and Queer-friendly Democrats of which the San Diego Democratic Club is a chapter] has not and will not make an endorsement, but its co-chairs, Steven Driscoll and Laurie McBride, have endorsed Hillary Clinton. A lot of us went to her campaign office in August and got a good response from Walsh, who’s not only openly Gay but also openly HIV-positive.”

Club member and constitutional law professor Bryan Wildenthal spoke for Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd. “He is a remarkably experienced Senator and is willing to draw a red line in the sand and defend our Constitution against the most lawless Presidential regime ever,” Wildenthal said of Dodd, noting that he’d voted against the confirmation of Mukasey and several of Bush’s Right-wing judicial appointees.

Speaking for former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Glen Jensen called him “the most articulate, well-focused person on every issue.” Jensen said that once Edwards is President, “we’re going to get rid of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ restrictions [on Queers in the military] and limits on the ability of Gay and Lesbian families to adopt children. There will be no exceptions to health care coverage under Edwards’ plan. I’m all about health care because I have a son with a major lung disease.” Jensen also cited Edwards’ commitment to fighting poverty and protecting the rights of workers to form unions.

Club member Brian Polejes, who works for the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) in San Diego, also spoke for Edwards. Polejes said he was particularly impressed at how fast Edwards responded to the anti-Queer remarks by former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace. Like Jensen, Polejes was also impressed by Edwards’ commitment to reducing economic inequality in the U.S. “The damages the country has suffered from wealth and poverty go back to Reagan,” Polejes said. “We need a clear progressive direction. Edwards is consistently progressive, but he has appeal in the Border and Midwest states.”

Bryan Wildenthal, who had previously spoken for Christopher Dodd, also put in a few good words for former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. “He filibustered against the Viet Nam war and is one of two candidates, along with Dennis Kucinich, who supports same-sex marriage.” Marilyn Riley, who had previously spoken for Edwards, also praised Gravel, saying that unlike Kucinich, Gravel has always been pro-choice on abortion.

Steve Powlen, the volunteer coordinator for Kucinich’s campaign in San Diego, spoke on his behalf and pointed to all the progressive issues he’s raising that other candidates are not. “He’s talked about NAFTA and has taken a stand for impeaching both Bush and Cheney,” Powlen said. “He’s the real deal.” Addressing the issue of Kucinich’s viability as a candidate, Powlen said, “Great social movements look impossible for a long time. For me, a wasted vote is a vote for anyone else. … A lot of you support Dennis in your heart, and I ask for your vote in the primary.”

The speakers in support of Barack Obama, club legislative director Alex Sachs (who in the 2004 race was for John Kerry early while the club and most of its leaders were supporting the stillborn candidacy of Howard Dean) and special events chair Tom DiCioccio, stressed his ability to draw new people into the political process. “At the last Obama meeting I attended, four Republicans raised their hands, and they’re going to remain Republicans but they’re for Obama,” DiCioccio said. “There are people who haven’t campaigned since John F. Kennedy ran but are campaigning for Obama.”

“Tom did a good job talking about the kinds of people being brought out of the shadows to support Obama,” Sachs added. “I spent 10 years in Washington, D.C. and the partisanship and lack of commitment to progress in this nation was disconcerting. That’s not the way Obama is.” Addressing the recent controversy over African-American minister, gospel singer and self-proclaimed “ex-Gay” Donnie McClurkin’s benefit concert for Obama, Sachs said that Obama “has tried to start a discussion with African-Americans who haven’t supported LGBT equality,” including building bridges between them and Queer African-Americans.

One long-term supporter of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said he’d become disenchanged with the candidate because of an answer he gave on one of the televised debates in which he refused to commit on whether Queers are “born or made.” Marilyn Riley rose to speak for Richardson, but her speech quickly turned into a slashing attack on Kucinich’s former opposition to abortion and an accusation that any Queer person who supports Kucinich is “turning your back against women.” Dilno, who had previously asked that all comments be positive, ruled her out of order.

Stephen Whitburn, former club president and current candidate for the District Three seat on the San Diego City Council, urged the club not to make a Presidential endorsement at all. “There’s a real distinction between what we do as individuals and what we do as a club,” he said. “What we do as a club becomes a message about LGBT equality, and it would be odd for us to support a candidate who does not support marriage equality” — which includes everybody in the Democratic field except Kucinich and Gravel — but, he added, “We should not endorse a candidate who’s not viable, either.”

The club took two ballots on the Presidential race. With a 60 percent vote needed either to endorse a candidate or take a formal position of “no endorsement,” the first ballot featured 14 votes for no endorsement, eight for Hillary Clinton, seven for John Edwards, three for Barack Obama and two for Dennis Kucinich. On the second ballot, with Obama and Kucinich disqualified, 20 members voted for no endorsement and there were seven votes each for Clinton and Edwards. Since the vote for no endorsement fell 1.1 percentage points short of the 60 percent threshold, acting chair Dilno declared a “failure to endorse.”

Club Neutral on Most Propositions

The Presidential race wasn’t the only controversial issue facing the club November 29. The club also had to consider positions on seven ballot measures that will be on the same ballot as the February 5 California Presidential primary. Ironically, the club was able to come to a firm position on only one of them: Proposition 91, which seeks to prevent the state legislature from diverting gasoline tax revenues from transportation-related projects to bolster the state’s general fund. The club overwhelmingly opposed this measure on the ground that it would artificially tie the hands of legislators at a time when they need maximum flexibility to deal with the collapse of the state’s housing market and the resulting severe drop in state revenues.

The club at first appeared willing to support Proposition 92, which would write into the state constitution guarantees for community college funding similar to those offered to elementary and secondary education now. Not surprisingly, the youngest members were strongly in favor of this, but other club members portrayed it as a food fight between labor unions representing community college teachers, university professors and K-12 teachers over the state’s total education budget. Other members also opposed so-called “ballot-box budgeting” — passing initiatives mandating that certain parts of the state budget be spent in certain ways, thus ensuring that spending cuts fall disproportionately on health, social services and other programs that aren’t protected by voter-passed initiatives. In the end, the club endorsed a neutral position on the measure.

The club also unexpectedly voted for a neutral position on Proposition 93, even though that’s one of the state Democratic party’s top priorities for the year. This measure would alter the term limits on California state legislators, reducing the total number of years a person could be a legislator from 14 to 12 but allow all of them to be spent in the same house. (Now legislators are limited to six years in the Assembly and eight in the State Senate.) Opposition split between club members who want to see term limits eliminated entirely and those who thought the proposition was being pitched under false pretenses. One member pointed out that the Democratic majority in the legislature originally promised to pair this with a measure to change the way legislators’ districts are drawn to make them more competitive, then had reneged and put the term limits measure on the ballot without a redistricting plan.

Perhaps the most controversial measures before the club were Propositions 94 through 97, a series of referenda placed on the ballot to cancel four new compacts the state has negotiated with Indian tribes seeking to build and run casinos. A yes vote on these propositions is a vote to allow the casinos; a no vote is a vote to ban them — a point which confused even some of the club’s politically savvy members. Supporters pointed to America’s historic genocide against Indian tribes and exploitation of their lands; opponents cited the refusal of casino-owning tribes to stay neutral when unions attempt to organize their workers. In the end, the club voted for a neutral position on these propositions, too.

A Tale of Two Women

The club also debated a resolution criticizing California’s senior U.S. Senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, for her recent votes to confirm Bush appointee Michael Mukasey as attorney general despite his refusal to define waterboarding as torture, and to confirm Leslie Southwick to a position on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit despite Southwick’s anti-Black and anti-Queer rulings as a state appeals court judge in Mississippi from 1995 to 2006.

According to the liberal watchdog group People for the American Way, “In 2001, Southwick joined a ruling that upheld a chancellor’s decision to take an eight-year-old girl away from her mother and award custody to the father, who had never married the mother, largely because the mother was living with another woman in a ‘Lesbian home.’ Southwick went even further by joining a gratuitously anti-Gay concurrence which extolled Mississippi’s right under ‘the principles of Federalism’ to treat ‘homosexual persons’ as second-class citizens. The concurrence suggested that sexual orientation is a choice and stated that an adult is not ‘relieved of the consequences of his or her choice’ – e.g. losing custody of one’s child.”

The resolution as introduced said that “the San Diego Democratic Club expresses its profound disappointment in both the rhetoric and actions of Senator Feinstein, who, by taking positions contrary to our community, has ignored her constituency and disregarded our shared Democratic principles of liberty, fairness and equal opportunity.” Bryan Wildenthal didn’t think the wording was strong enough, however. He offered an amendment to change “expresses its profound disappointment” to “censures and withdraws its support” for Feinstein. After a long debate, Wildenthal’s amendment was voted down, 24 against to six in favor, and the original resolution was passed 27 to five with one member abstaining.

In contrast to the rest of the meeting, the opening item — considering an endorsement in City Council District 1 — was virtually a love-fest for the only Democratic candidate in the race, Sherri Lightner. A long-time community activist in the effort to control development in La Jolla, with a quite long list of boards and commissions she’s served on, Lightner pointed with pride to her first two endorsements from elected officials: State Senator Christine Kehoe, an open Lesbian and the first openly Queer person elected to any office in San Diego County, and City Councilmember and former mayoral candidate Donna Frye.

“The seat is now held by [moderate Democrat] Scott Peters, and I want to keep the seat Democratic,” Lightner said. “It will not be easy. I have two Republican opponents who are heavily personally funded” — meaning that they are both extremely wealthy and can donate virtually unlimited amounts of money to their own campaigns. “We deserve a better San Diego than we have. For much of my life, I have been a mechanical engineer. I look at facts and figures. I understand accounting and know the city has to make tough decisions about its finances and not push them off to our children and grandchildren. I know how the city runs now, and how it should run.”

Lightner’s endorsement passed without any voting member opposing or abstaining — a rare degree of unanimity in what was otherwise a quite contentious meeting of the San Diego Democratic Club.