Monday, December 31, 2007
First Openly Gay President of U.S. Young Democrats
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
On December 6, the Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego (SYDSD) held a fundraiser at the Bamboo Lounge in Hillcrest to take advantage of the availability of David Hardt, recently elected president of the nationwide Young Democrats of America — the first openly Gay man to hold that position. It wasn’t as much of a milestone as it sounds. The national Young Democrats had long since gone on record as supporting full civil rights for Queer people and full marriage equality for same-sex couples, so Hardt didn’t expect his sexuality to be an issue in his election, and it wasn’t.
Hardt, who was in town for a business meeting and donated his time to the local group, turned out to be a 32-year-old, sandy-haired man with a seemingly laid-back manner, but he’s racked up enough achievements as an organizer to belie that first impression. He speaks with a soft drawl from his native Texas, where he’s lived virtually all his life, and though he concedes Texas is a conservative state overall he insists there are enclaves of progressivism, mostly in the major urban centers, which are as Queer-friendly as any large cities in the U.S.
Indeed, before we started the interview Hardt can be heard on the tape boasting that his native Dallas “leads the way in the number of Gay elected officials in any major city in America right now” and is part of “a solid Democratic county.” Indeed, he says that Dallas is on balance more liberal than Austin, the state capital and the place usually thought of as the epicenter of progressive Texas, and San Antonio and El Paso are also progressive, Queer-friendly enclaves.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you just tell me a little about your background, how you got involved in politics, and how you got into the Young Democrats?
David Hardt: I’m currently the chief financial officer for a manufacturing company in Dallas. Originally, when I was in college, I was on the other side [i.e., he was a Republican]. Growing up in Texas, that’s almost a given. I went to a very, very conservative school, and when I graduated I had met my current partner — we were dating at the time — and he got sick. We didn’t know what it was, and we had to take him to the emergency room. It seemed major at the time.
He was in the hospital, in the emergency room, and I tried to go back to see him. The front-desk nurse said, “No, you can’t go back.” She’d asked who I was. I told her I was his boyfriend, and she said, “They only recognize family members,” and since I wasn’t a family member they wouldn’t let me go back. This was Baylor Hospital, a very conservative Baptist-owned hospital in Texas, and of course, we didn’t choose for him to go there. That was just where it was closest for us.
After that happened, I called my Congressmember, who at the time was Pete Sessions — still in Congress now — a very conservative, anti-Gay Republican. His office essentially told me that there was nothing they could do, nor would the Congressmember be interested in doing anything anyway. So as soon as I talked to his office, I immediately decided, “Well, I don’t belong in this party.”
I went over to the office of his Democratic challenger, Pauline Dixon, a 68-year-old, I believe she was at the time, retired schoolteacher, grandmother, short African-American woman. I wrote her a check, and she grabbed me and said, “You’re going to volunteer on my campaign.” That’s how I got involved in politics, and I’ve been going ever since.
Zenger’s: When did you first become aware you were Gay?
Hardt: Gosh, I think I was about 15 when I started having the feelings. I didn’t actually come out until my senior year in college.
Zenger’s: Growing up as a Texas boy, what was that like?
Hardt: Well, Texas is a very conservative state. We all know that, and it’s not the easiest place to be Gay, unless you are fortunate enough to live in one of the urban centers — like Dallas, where I live now — that are very friendly to LGBT [Queer] people.
Zenger’s: How did you get involved with Young Democrats?
Hardt: Pauline Dixon lost, of course, but I had met some members of the local Young Democrats chapter in Dallas through her campaign.. I joined it right after the campaign. Probably about two months after joining the club I was declared the treasurer. A few months after that, the chapter president left and didn’t resign, so I essentially became the de facto president while he was gone, and helped build that chapter up from just a small handful of people to the largest chapter in the country.
Zenger’s: How did you do that?
Hardt: When I took over, essentially, as de facto president, I had already risen quite rapidly in my own professional career. I wasn’t quite a CFO at the time, but I took what I’ve learned in the corporate world and said, “Politics in this organization is pretty much like running a corporation. You need to treat it as such.” I went out and found a few key individuals I knew could be the backbone in the design of the organization. I was the face; the current president now was the brains of the design behind it; and we found a great communications person by the name of Greg McPike, who is now running our sheriff’s campaign locally.
We sat down and designed a plan to go out and recruit members. We needed to talk to young people where they live, work and play, and tell them why they need to be part of the Democratic party, and get them involved in our organization. We did that by going into bars and clubs, having meetings at large companies where we had members, and going after people who were part of other progressive organizations — animal-rights organizations, LGBT organizations, Sierra Club, environmentalist groups and such.
Zenger’s: What would you say to the argument that neither of the major parties is particularly responsive to Queer rights? President Clinton, after all, was the person who signed “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the “Defense of Marriage Act” into law. We were unable to get an all-inclusive version of ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] through a Democratic Congress, and Congress hasn’t been willing to pass a hate-crimes bill that includes Queer people. So why should a Queer person in this country be a Republican or a Democrat?
Hardt: Do you mind if I talk first about ENDA? The Young Democrats of America were very opposed to what HRC [the Human Rights Campaign] and Congressmember [Barney] Frank did in removing Transgender people and gender identity out of that. We were one of the few specifically partisan organizations to be completely opposed to them doing that, and we were out-front in lobbying our members of Congress against it.
The reason I bring that up is that our organization is a pretty good indicator of what our party will look like in a few years, probably five to 10 years. When our leaders start moving up into the Democratic Party structure as a whole, we take our ideals with us. We’ve seen that in the past, with the progression of the Democratic Party as it is now. A lot of the stances and the policies that were in place in the Young Democrats 15 to 20 years ago are now in place with this new crop of leaders that’s running the show today.
It gives me great hope that our generation is so progressive. Our platform explicitly supports full Gay marriage and equality for LGBT citizens. We fully support gender identity and Transgender rights. So when our members and our leaders start progressing into the Democratic party infrastructure and leadership, we will see a change within the Democratic party, and we will see a change in this country. So there is hope.
Zenger’s: Of course, that assumes that the Democratic Party actually does well, regains the presidency and becomes the majority party. A lot of that seems like a pretty problematic assumption. Despite Bush’s unpopularity, the Republicans are doing quite well in the one-on-one polls for the presidency, and there’s been at least some argument that the 2006 election was just a fluke and the Republicans will be able to regain Congress as well.
Hardt: We have a ton of work to do, absolutely. We’re not going to take this election as a cakewalk. We’ll probably have the largest campaign we’ve ever had in our organization’s history, and I think Democrats are ready. I think the country is ready for a change, and if we don’t capitalize on the attitude of the country that’s ready for a change, then we don’t deserve to be in power.
Zenger’s: How is the Democratic Party going to make the case that it is the party of change, especially if Hillary Clinton is the nominee? Isn’t that just the same-old same-old?
Hardt: No, I don’t believe so. Hillary brings a great amount of experience to the table, and I think Americans like someone to have a little experience, especially in foreign policy. The change that I think not just her, but any nominee, will bring is our standing in the world, number one. As soon as we elect a new Democratic President, that Democrat will more than likely get out, meet with world leaders, start bringing back compromise with them and stop having this unilateral, “America does it all” stance that we’ve had for so long.
Two, I think the nominee is that ultimately wins the White House will have the task of trying to save our health-care system. I truly believe that the Democratic Party is the only party that can fix our health-care system.
Three, if you look back historically, when a Democrat gets in the White House our economy usually does better.
And the final thing I would say that most Americans want to see change is get us out of this war in Iraq somehow, some way. Every Democratic candidate says we should get out. Whether it’s a timetable of a year or six months or immediate withdrawal, they all agree that we have to get out of there in a reasonable time.
Zenger’s: It’s my understanding that Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards have all hinted that the American troop commitment in Iraq is likely to last until the end of their first term.
Hardt: Right, but there won’t be any new surge, and the surge numbers that they do have in Iraq right now will be brought home. Three of the major contenders have said that they would start allowing longer leaves and more rest time between deployments.
I don’t agree with them on it. I think twe need to be out within a year. Of course, I don’t agree that we need an immediate withdrawal. Most sensible people, most Americans, understand that it takes a little bit of time to withdraw so that people don’t get injured or killed on the way out. But I think we can reasonably get our troops out within a year and end this war. If the Iraqi people by now can’t take care of their own country, then quite honestly they’re a country that needs to figure it out, and if it means a civil war for them, so be it. They’re going to have to figure it out on their own. They can’t have us running their show any longer.
Zenger’s: I was just reading an interview with Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone magazine, where she said that the network of private contractors in government has been built up to such an extent that the next President, Democrat or Republican, will not be able to break a lot of these contracts. They’ll still be stuck with Halliburton and Blackwater and a lot of these companies with their own agendas, providing a lot of our services and a lot of our security.
Hardt: Right. I think that whoever’s appointed the next attorney general needs to find a way out of those contracts. I’ve heard that same problem before, and most Americans aren’t aware of it, unfortunately, but it is going to be a big issue with whoever wins the White House. Whoever our next attorney general is, they’re going to have to answer those tough questions of can we legally get out of those contracts, and were they allowed to be into those contracts in the first place.
Zenger’s: A related issue is that decades of Republican propaganda have convinced most of the American people that government can’t do anything right; that the private sector is inherently more efficient, and the more things you privatize, the better. How would you see a Democratic President — assuming they have a Democratic Congress to work with as well — trying to restore people’s faith in public solutions to these kinds of problems?
Hardt: First, we’re going to have to have a massive rebuilding of infrastructure. What happened in Minneapolis [the bridge collapse] is a prime example of just how bad our infrastructure has become. With all these years of Republican rule, there hasn’t been any investment, federal investment — or enough federal investment — in our nation’s infrastructure: trains, roads, air.
There was a report, I believe in the New York Times, just yesterday, talking about how close we are to a catastrophic mid-air collision over our nation’s airports because of the lack of federal funding for more air traffic controllers, and air traffic controllers being overworked and such. I think that once the Democrats get in and start investing immediately in infrastructure — our air, trains, roads — the American public will see that immediately. That’s something that we can see the government as working.
On top of that, again, I go back to health care. Americans know our health-care system is completely screwed up. I was in New Hampshire a couple of weeks ago when President Clinton was talking about the need for more AIDS drugs in Africa, yet there are so many people in America that don’t have health care and can’t afford to buy those drugs, the way our Western friends and our neighbors to the north can.
Even in places like Costa Rica and Brazil, a person can get this new medicine and live a longer and more normal life, and not have to pay for it out of their own pocket. In our own country, we let people go without these drugs and go into medical despair. That’s another thing I think Democrats can immediately start working on, so the American people can see that the government can work for them.
Zenger’s: Which brings up the fact that both major parties are dependent on corporations and wealthy individuals for their fundraising, and how far can either party go to challenge the corporate consensus when the corporations pay their bills.
Hardt: Right. I certainly believe that we need better campaign finance reform, and we need corporations completely out of the game. [Federal law doesn’t allow corporations to give directly to campaigns, but California state law does.] If corporations want to give, they can give to 527’s or other organizations, but they don’t need to be giving directly to campaigns. I think there needs to be a much lower limit [on individual contributions to campaigns], and I’m a firm believer in federal financing of campaigns, so we can get out of this campaign system that is specifically a bunch of media, mass mailings, media markets, and we’ve lost that go-knock-on-doors, that human touch of a political campaign.
We all attempt to say that field campaigns are still present. Well, they are, but not at the level that they need to be. Americans have lost their human touch of going to their neighbors and talking to them about what politics means to them, and how it can work for them.
Zenger’s: Your election as head of the Young Democrats is being touted as an historic milestone, the first openly Gay person. Was it a big deal when you were running, and do you think it’s a big deal personally?
Hardt: When I first started running, I didn’t think I could win, and I thought it would be a bigger issue than it was. Quite honestly, towards the middle and end of the campaign, I never really heard any negative remarks. Again, our organization has for quite some time now had a platform that explicitly supports Gay marriage and full equality for LGBT citizens. I never heard really any negative things about my campaign, and I won with 93 percent of the vote, which is the highest percentage in the history of the organization. I think that’s enough of a mandate to say our organization supports openly Gay, Lesbian and Transgender people.