Saturday, August 01, 2009

Queer Democrats Endorse Susan Davis for Re-Election

Her Support for Seaman Provost Helps Get Her the Votes


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Susan Davis (file photo from her debate with Mike Copass, May 25, 2008), Ben Gomez, Mike McGee, Ted Bunce

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club barely endorsed Congressmember Susan Davis for re-election as a so-called “friendly incumbent” at their July 23 meeting. Davis squeaked through with the bare minimum of votes she needed to meet the club’s 60 percent vote threshold for an endorsement — 22 in favor to 14 against — after a heated debate in which her supporters stressed her opposition to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military and her generally good record on feminist issues and Queer rights. Her opponents questioned her slowness to endorse repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” her steadfast support of all the supplemental appropriations bills to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and her opposition to anything resembling a single-payer health insurance system.

The debate stemmed from the club’s policy of making “friendly incumbent” endorsements on the basis of officeholders’ track records rather than making them go through the ordinary process of filling out a club questionnaire and attending a meeting. Some of the friendly incumbents so endorsed are people running for statewide office who can’t reasonably be expected to address a local club in San Diego. Others are candidates in other states, whom the club is permitted to endorse as long as they’re openly Queer. At its previous meeting on June 25, the club’s board presented a slate of friendly incumbent endorsements including local Congressmember Bob Filner, state treasurer Bill Lockyer, state controller John Chiang, secretary of state Debra Bowen, Assemblymember Manuel Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and openly Queer officeholders Congressmembers Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Jared Polis (D-CO), all of whom were approved.

But club members pulled three names off the slate for further discussion: Massachusetts Congressmember Barney Frank, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and Congressmember Davis. Because the June 25 meeting ran three hours, those discussions were delayed until July 23. Boxer’s and Frank’s endorsements passed easily. Even Ted Bunce, the member who pulled Boxer’s name off the slate, ended up voting for her after saying he’d merely meant to register a protest against her vote (along with almost all the Senate) against the appropriation the Obama administration sought to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Boxer’s endorsement was unanimous, and Frank’s endorsement passed with just three dissenting votes.

Davis’s was another matter. Bunce, who the month before had questioned whether the club ought to be endorsing at all for an election that isn’t going to happen for 11 months, was bitter that Davis hadn’t spoken to the club in years — and she didn’t have the excuse of being a statewide or out-of-state candidate. “All local candidates we endorse come before us — except Susan Davis,” Bunce said. “When was the last time she came? We should invite her in August, when Congress will be in recess, rather than endorse her now and let her take us for granted.” Bunce also pointed out that just before the meeting, Davis had sent out a newsletter to her constituents which extensively covered her efforts to help military families — and made no mention of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“I’m supporting the friendly incumbent endorsement of Susan Davis,” said former club president Craig Roberts. “She is the only Congressmember who has actually held a hearing on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.” Roberts conceded that Davis had been slow to endorse repealing the anti-Queer military policy and had only done so after the San Diego Democratic Club delayed her endorsement in a previous election cycle, but said, “When people move in your direction and you still withhold your endorsement, she’ll have to wonder, ‘Why bother?’”

“You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more consistently supportive of LGBT [Queer] issues,” said Laura Fink, Davis’s political director. “In 1985, as a member of the San Diego Unified School District board of trustees, she was on the losing end of a vote [in which the majority] allowed HIV-positive students to be thrown out of school. I’m pretty proud of what she’s done on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ She’s not afraid to take on the military leaders.” Fink said the reason Davis hasn’t had another hearing on the policy since 2007 was “because the military people will not attend.”

“I was a fundraiser for Susan Davis in her Assembly campaign, and she was 100 percent on Gay issues,” said veteran club member Elaine Graybill. “She has stood for us on every issue. I can’t imagine why, every time Susan’s name comes up, we run into this.”

“It really surprises me when I hear anti-Susan Davis remarks,” said former club president Gloria Johnson. “She’s consistently supported women’s issues and actually helped me staff the San Diego Democratic Club booth at Pride. She’s 100 percent pro-choice and I’m glad we gave her an early endorsement last time.”

Other members questioned whether Davis deserved an early endorsement when a more progressive primary challenger might still emerge before the filing deadline for the race next February. Some club members felt hamstrung that the club endorsed Davis early in her last election, well before Mike Copass of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) decided to challenge her in the primary. At her one debate with Copass, Davis said that though she was proud of her vote to oppose the initial resolution authorizing the Bush administration’s attack on Iraq, “I also have to tell you with my heart and my head, I have supported the funding, because I believe that it does support our troops.”

Anti-war activists in the club questioned that position, and other members also criticized Davis’s position on health care. Davis voted against an amendment to the House’s health care reform bill that would have allowed individual states to enact single-payer health programs as an alternative to the private, for-profit health insurance industry. Davis supporter Nick Neville said she voted against this amendment “because she feels the whole point of federal health care reform is to have one national system.”

Both Neville and Michelle Krug, a club member who’s also a city worker and an activist on labor issues, claimed that Davis did support the so-called “public option” in the proposal that would allow individuals a choice besides a private insurer. (Health care activists outside the club have said that Davis is the only Democratic Congressmember from California who has not endorsed the “public option.”) Krug said that Davis “has a problem with anything tainted with single-payer.”

Davis’s chances for the endorsement got a boost from an unlikely source: the recent murder of Seaman August Provost on base at Camp Pendleton near Oceanside. Two spokespeople for the movement to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allow Queer people to serve openly in the U.S. military, Ben Gomez and Mike McGee, came to the meeting to report on the Provost case — and they were carefully scheduled before the debate on the Davis endorsement so their praise of her role in pushing the investigation would help her cause.

“Seaman Provost was murdered at Camp Pendleton,” said Alex Sachs, the club’s political director. “He was openly Gay and his murder was particularly brutal. The leading groups questioning his death are Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Fund (SLDN), American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER), the North County Lesbian/Gay Coalition and the San Diego Human Relations Commission. There has been a vigil in Oceanside, and yesterday the club arranged a meeting by phone with Congressmember Bob Filner. He and Susan Davis have both been active in pushing for an investigation into Seaman Provost’s death.”

Sachs read a long statement from the U.S. Navy that denied Seaman Provost’s death was a hate crime or had anything to do with his sexual orientation. The Navy has accused fellow servicemember John Campos of killing Provost and is seeking a so-called “Article 32 hearing” — military law’s equivalent of a grand jury indictment — based on the theory that Campos was attempting to set fire to a hovercraft, Provost caught him in the act and Campos killed him to keep from being reported. “This is the most we have heard from the Navy,” said Gomez, an openly Gay man who left the military when he fell in love and decided he wanted to live with his partner and be “out” about who he was and who loved, rather than continue to have to hide it under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“It’s important that we note the efforts of Davis and Filner,” said McGee, an activist with AVER. “They have been very active in putting pressure on the Defense Department to get answers. Two SLDN attorneys have been working on this since the murder, and we are working with our sources to get as much information as possible.” Gomez mentioned three other Congressmembers who are working on the Provost case: openly Lesbian Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin); Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat whose district includes Provost’s home town, Houston; and San Diego Republican Brian Bilbray. Though Bilbray is usually on the opposite side of issues the San Diego Democratic Club cares about, he’s joined Filner and Davis in pushing for a full investigation into Seaman Provost’s death. One club member noted bitterly that, despite Bilbray’s involvement, fellow Republican Congressmember Darrell Issa, whose district includes Camp Pendleton, has still not taken an interest in the case.

McGee cited Provost’s murder as an example of the evil of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Because of the policy, McGee explained, when Provost was being harassed by fellow servicemembers for being Gay, “He had nowhere to go to report the harassment” — because reporting it would have immediately put him on the fast track to a punitive discharge for violating the policy. McGee also said that though a bill to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and bar the military from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation is on the floor of Congress, it’s going nowhere because many Democrats are too afraid of the military to sign on. Even Senator Karen Hillenbrand’s relatively modest proposal to suspend discharges under “don’t ask, don’t tell” for 18 months couldn’t get a majority of Senators behind it, McGee said.