Wednesday, September 02, 2009
President’s Former Advisor Attacks Him at Freedom Awards
Steve Hildebrand Criticizes Obama, Pelosi, Reid and “Blue Dog” Moderates
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Introducing Steve Hildebrand, deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign, at the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club’s Freedom Awards August 22 at the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park, San Diego Democratic Party chair Jess Durfee said he’d been described as “the Gay person Obama listens to and the Gay person closest to the President.” When Hildebrand actually took the podium, he snapped, “The problem is Obama isn’t listening enough” — setting the tone for a slashing attack on Obama and the Democratic officeholders in Congress for failing to advance progressive causes and letting Republicans and so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats set the agenda for the country.
“This is my President, this is our President,” Hildebrand said of Obama, the man he helped put in the White House. “I love him, I love Michelle, I want him to succeed, but all of us need to put pressure on him and Congress to do the right things. The American people put confidence in the Democrats because they though we could get things done, and if we fail, they’re not going to give it back.” He made it clear that he fears the Republicans will be able to return to power in 2010 and 2012 unless the Democrats put through a progressive agenda now — not only on Queer issues but on health care, the economy, global warming and the other issues Obama promised “change” on in 2008.
Hildebrand went after Obama, the “Blue Dogs” in the House and “moderate” Democrats in the Senate, and the party’s leaders in Congress — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid — in equal measure. “There are a lot of Blue Dogs in the House and moderate Democrats in the Senate who are standing in the way of getting things done,” Hildebrand said. “I gave up a lot to elect Democrats, and I expect them to give it up for me. I’m going to speak loudly. The Republicans don’t have power unless the moderates and the Blue Dogs give it to them — which is what they’re doing now.”
One thing Hildebrand said he plans to do personally is to move away from helping to elect specific candidates — which has been the focus of his political work for 22 years — and instead focus on building campaigns to put pressure on politicians from outside the electoral system. “We have to help elect good people to office, but we also have to push them from the outside,” he said. “I don’t want to have to listen to one more candidate talk about ‘reforming health care’ and not get it done. I’m tired of it.”
What irks Hildebrand most about the “Blue Dogs” and their “moderate” counterparts in the Senate is that by demanding compromises and moving the Democrats’ programs closer to what the Republicans want, they’re cutting their own electoral throats as well as helping the Republicans regain majority status in Congress. That’s because the “Blue Dogs” generally represent moderate-to-conservative districts that are the likely ones the Republicans will target next year — and, Hildebrand explained, “they’re going to lose their elections and make us the minority again unless they get things done.”
Hildebrand warned that 2009 is shaping up to be “1993 all over again” — the year the Republicans fueled voter anger over a Democratic plan to reform health insurance and built a movement that ended the 42-year Democratic majority in the House and took the Senate as well — unless the Democrats get their act together and enact a progressive program that will give people a reason to vote for them. He criticized not only the “Blue Dogs” and Senate moderates but also Pelosi and Reid for not keeping them in line and getting them to support and vote for progressive bills.
“We all lose as a party if we allow the moderates and the Blue Dogs to continue” setting the agenda for the party, Hildebrand explained. “The Republicans are loving it, and they should. When are we going to start standing up to these people? Tell [Pelosi and Reid] to start leading and holding the 52 Blue Dogs accountable. You’re either a Democrat or not. I view [the ‘Blue Dog’ movement] as cowardly, calculating and standing in the way of equality. We have to hold these people — and the President — accountable. We need leadership in the party. I’m not helping these people anymore.”
Hildebrand had his own personal horror story to tell about a “Blue Dog.” A native of South Dakota who still lives there (he said he’d like to move to San Diego but his partner has so far vetoed it), he’s represented in Congress by Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who “wears the Blue Dog label proudly. When she ran in 2004, I gave her $500 and we opened up our home for her and allowed her to film media ads in our home. Then, without talking to the Gay people who had helped her, she announced her support for the Federal Marriage Amendment to ban same-sex marriage nationwide. I demanded my contribution back — and got it. The next time she runs I will support her opponent, even if it’s a Republican.”
Defending his decision to abandon support for specific candidates and concentrate on campaigns outside electoral politics, Hildebrand said that outside the system “we can be as effective, if not more. We have an opportunity at this early stage to hold the Democrats accountable. I’m not asking them to commit political heresy, just to do good things that will help them get re-elected: pass health care, pass climate change, stop worrying about your little districts and get something done for the country.” Speaking for the Queer community, Hildebrand said that in the 22 years he’s been helping Democratic candidates win office “we haven’t come very far” in the struggle for equality. “The government still doesn’t treat Gay people equally. Should I continue doing what I’m doing, or should I be a strong voice from the outside?”
Hildebrand also defended his involvement in a highly controversial debate within California’s Queer community: the public split between the two leading organizations for marriage equality, the Courage Campaign and Equality California, over whether to put an initiative on the ballot to repeal Proposition 8 in 2010 or 2012. He startled his audience somewhat by saying that the next major battleground over marriage equality isn’t in California at all; it’s in Maine, where in a little over two months opponents will have a chance at the ballot box to overturn Maine’s law allowing same-sex couples to marry.
Though he stopped short of saying that the chances for marriage equality in California would be killed by a defeat in Maine, he urged his audience to support the Maine campaign not only with immediate donations but volunteer time as well. “Take a week off work if you can and go to Maine,” he said. “If we lose in Maine, it’s going to be a strike against us in California. They’re running a good fight, but they need resources. Then we can take it up in California.”
Hildebrand said he got involved in the California controversy when he was asked for advice by both Rick Jacobs, founder of the Courage Campaign; and Marc Solomon, marriage organizer for Equality California. Along with several other Queer activists with electoral campaign experience — including both “yes” and “no” initiative campaigns — Hildebrand said he studied the issue to create “a road map [as to] what we need to do to build a campaign: what kind of leadership structure, what kind of message, how do we foster the grass roods and grow it, and how do we plan for a ballot fight without a specific date attached.”
What his team concluded, Hildebrand said, was that the debate over when the voter pool might be most favorable to an attempt to repeal Proposition 8 was irrelevant because “the conclusion our team reached was that it’s winnable in 2010, 2012 or 2014 if you put together the right message, have a strong campaign and do it right.” He said his group’s research contradicted the widely held assumption that the larger voter turnout likely in a Presidential election would make repeal easier in 2012 than 2010 — and as long as there’s no difference in terms of the chance for success, he feels the earlier the better because the denial of marriage equality is a basic attack on our rights that needs to be reversed as soon as possible.
The main business of the Freedom Awards was to acknowledge community members, elected officials and club volunteers for their service to the club and to the cause of Queer rights generally. Congressmember Bob Filner received the A. Brad Truax Human Rights Award. His citation in the program mentioned that Filner’s activist career started when he took a Freedom Ride to the South in 1961 — the year Barack Obama was born — to protest racial segregation, and was arrested and spent time in a Mississippi jail.
Filner remembered attending the first Freedom Awards — then called the Freedom Banquet — in 1979, also in Balboa Park, and recalled that as a recently elected member of the San Diego Unified School District board, “I think I was the only public official there. There were people outside with hate-filled signs, and we had to run the gantlet to get in. Today, we’ve had a Gay deputy mayor and we have a Gay district attorney in San Diego. We’ve come a long way, and the San Diego Democratic Club deserves a lot of the credit for that.” Filner mentioned that he and San Diego Queer activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez were recently arrested in Old Town for protesting the firing of 130 union workers from a restaurant when a new concessionaire wanted to go non-union.
He also mentioned the murder of Seaman August Provost on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base, which the Navy is insisting was not a hate crime even though Provost was Gay and was being harassed over it, and the subsequent suicide of the man accused of the crime. “What does this incident tell us about ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’?,” Filner said. “Provost couldn’t report being harassed for being Gay, because then he would have been fired. His partner was notified of his death by a newspaper report. That says what a tragic and inhumane policy ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is. We’re committed to changing it, and we will change it. It’s against national security, the national interest and humanity.”
Jess Durfee, former San Diego Democratic Club president and now chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, won the President’s Award, the only one decided solely by the club’s president and not announced in advance. The Greater San Diego Business Association (GSDBA) won the Eleanor Roosevelt Community Service Award — the only one that can go to an organization as well as an individual. Former club president Andrea Villa won the J. Douglas Scott Political Action Award, retiring San Diego Human Relations Director Ashley Walker won the Gloria Steinem Communications Award (Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez accepted it for her because she was unable to attend), and Zenger’s editor/publisher Mark Gabrish Conlan won the R. Steven Pope Volunteerism Award for his reports on the club’s meetings for its newsletter.