Thursday, March 01, 2012

Queer Democrats Split in 51st District Congressional Race

Rate Ducheny, Vargas “Acceptable” Despite Vargas’ Anti-Marriage Stand


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: L to R: Juan Vargas, Denise Moreno Ducheny, John Brooks

At its February 23 meeting at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, the predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality were unable to come together to endorse a candidate for Congress in the 51st District, the seat incumbent Democrat Bob Filner is giving up to run for Mayor of San Diego. After former state senator Denise Moreno Ducheny fell one vote short of winning the 60 percent of members voting needed for an endorsement, the club rated both her and her principal opponent, state senator Juan Vargas, “acceptable” despite Vargas’s continuing opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples.
The club heard from three candidates in the Democratic primary: Ducheny, Vargas and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent John Brooks. Ducheny scored 100 percent on the club’s issues questionnaire. Vargas scored 97 percent, being docked for his opposition to marriage equality and a legal right for terminally ill individuals to choose when to die. Brooks scored 88 percent, mainly for his support of restrictions on a woman’s right to reproductive choice and his opposition to requiring private companies doing business with the government to offer equal benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Ironically, Brooks claimed to have been inspired to run by the Occupy movement even though his questionnaire answers suggested he was the least progressive of the three candidates.
Since the original online version of this article was published, Brooks’ campaign has provided a copy of his original questionnaire and suggested that his answers were misreported by club officials at the meeting. He answered the question on whether the government should contract only with private companies that offer equal benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex couples, “U.S. companies, yes. Foreign companies, no. [We] do not have the right to push our beliefs on other countries.” He said he would support requiring women seeking abortion to notify their spouses because “I think the partner has a right to know. The woman has the final say, but the partner has a right to know.”
Brooks called the parental-notification requirement for minor girls seeking abortions “a tough question” and said his answer would “depend on the minor’s age.” He said that “the parents should know” if their daughter’s pregnancy was the result of rape or sex with an adult. During the meeting itself, Brooks told the club that he had talked to a person who worked as a Congressional staff member in the 1970’s, who had told him “we’re stepping back” on women’s rights. Brooks added, “The government has no right to legislate to any individual what they can do with their bodies.”
“I am not in favor of assisted suicide,” said Vargas, who used his opening statement to address his disagreements with the club’s issue agenda. “I am a very religious person, a Catholic, but I don’t think there should be any penalty for a physician who decides to assist a suicide.” On marriage equality, Vargas’s ambiguous response suggested he might support the suggestion made by several pundits that the government get out of the business of marriage altogether and allow individual churches to decide whether to marry same-sex couples or not.
“I do believe there’s a separation of church and state, and a very strong one,” Vargas said. “The government should not baptize people or have any involvement with issues you deal with with your own self, your church, your group. I voted against Proposition 8 and I’m totally against the Defense of Marriage Act [the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman] because it’s government deciding what marriage is. I do respect, agree with and accept marriage between Gay and Lesbian people, between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, if a church or a group decides to do it.”
But, Vargas added, “Do I think the government should marry people? No, I don’t. I think there should be a strict separation between government and church. That being said, obviously we do have civil marriages. I voted twice against the [California marriage-equality] bill when it was simply the government marrying people. I wasn’t there for the vote on the Leno bill [which would have given same-sex couples equal access to civil marriage but guaranteed churches the right to refuse to marry same-sex couples], but I would have voted for it because it made the distinction that the government isn’t marrying people, it’s simply recognizing marriage — which I’m in favor of.”
“I did vote for Leno’s bill in 2009,” said Ducheny, “and I continue to support its ideals. I’m proud to have the endorsement of former state senator Sheila Kuehl [the first openly Queer person elected to the California legislature], and she’s helping on this campaign, as she did on my last.” She also argued that “Congress desperately needs more women, especially after last week,” when Republican Congressmember Darrell Issa of North County chaired a hearing on whether the federal government should require private employers who offer health insurance to cover birth control — and no women were invited or allowed to speak.
The first question both candidates got from the audience was on women’s reproductive freedom — specifically the bill pending in the Virginia legislature, since modified, which would have required women seeking abortions to have “trans-vaginal ultrasounds,” meaning probes would be inserted inside them and they’d be forced to listen to sounds allegedly representing the heartbeats of their fetuses. “I’m completely against the bill in Virginia,” Vargas said. “I’m for contraception and don’t think the church or government should be involved.”
“The Virginia bill is outrageous,” said Ducheny, noting that even the voters of a state with as Right-wing a reputation as Mississippi turned down a ballot measure that would have defined human life as beginning with conception. Regarding the controversy over the mandate that insurance companies cover contraception, and the claim by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that this is both morally wrong and a violation of their church’s First Amendment freedom, Ducheny said, “It’s all about employees. You should not be able to deny contraceptive coverage to your employees, zero, zip, whatever.”
While the concerns around Vargas centered mostly on his opposition to marriage equality, Ducheny got critical questions on a number of issues. She was attacked for signing on to major cuts in funding for services to senior citizens, disabled people and others while she chaired the budget committees in both houses of the state legislature. She was also criticized for having accepted funding for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and for having opposed some of the gun-control bills in the California legislature.
Ducheny called gun ownership “a constitutional issue, and [about] getting government out of your house. I think you ought to be responsible. I voted for background checks and against allowing people with a history of domestic violence to own guns. It’s not like one organization tells you how to vote. You vote on each bill as it is, and a lot of times they get really complicated, like the one they tried to pass that said the Olympic training lady couldn’t own a weapon.” Vargas boasted that he had voted for every gun-control bill that came before the legislature while he served there.
Vargas, in turn, got criticized for having turned against single-payer health care in the California legislature this year after having voted for it twice previously. “I had supported it before Obama came forward with his plan,” Vargas said. “I think Obama’s bill should have a chance. If it fails, I’d be in favor of single-payer again.”
Ducheny said she didn’t see a contradiction between hoping the so-called “Obamacare” program works and supporting single-payer. “I support the Affordable Care Act [the official name for the law often derided as ‘Obamacare’],” she explained, “but a lot of the details won’t work out when it’s implemented. California and other states should have the right to move forward with single-payer.”
Ironically, the most vehement challenge to Ducheny came from Lorena Gonzalez, head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, over an issue that wasn’t on the radar screen of most club members: the rights of workers in casinos on Native American land to organize and bargain collectively. Ducheny insisted that she’d always supported the right of casino workers to organize — “that’s why Proposition 1A [which authorized Indian gaming in California] was written the way it was, to include labor ordinances as part of the compacts” [the agreements between the tribes and state and federal governments under which the casinos operate] — but “the problem came in 2006-07 when there was an attempt to rewrite the laws.”
After the candidates left the room, required by club rules, and the members debated the endorsement, Gonzalez continued to attack Ducheny over the Indian gaming issue. Gonzalez claimed that the bills Ducheny supported in 2006-07 eviscerated the rights of casino workers. “If you are a LGBT [Queer] community member and you work at a casino, unless you have a union, you can be fired or sexually harassed,” Gonzalez said. “I like Denise and she is a nice woman, but she was not willing to fight for us on labor issues.” Gonzalez also said the AFL-CIO’s issues scorecard gave Ducheny only 60 percent — the lowest rating for a Democrat in the California legislature ­— while Vargas got 98 percent.
Former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Maureen Steiner tried to defend Ducheny’s labor record. “When you talk about a person’s voting record, the bills are complicated. Every advocacy group has their position, and it doesn’t always reflect the complexity of these bills. Denise carried bills that required [the Indian casinos] to have labor rights.”
“That’s not true,” Gonzalez interrupted ­— ironically evoking memories of Republican Congressmember Joe Wilson publicly calling President Obama a liar during the 2010 State of the Union Address. Later, when another club member asked that Gonzalez be censured for rudely interrupting a speaker, Gonzalez interrupted him, too.
On the club’s first ballot, Ducheny got 38 votes to 25 for Vargas, zero for Brooks and three for no endorsement, winning a majority but falling three percentage points short of the 60 percent needed for an endorsement. Under the rules, both Vargas and Brooks were dropped from the second ballot — Brooks because he had got no votes at all and Vargas because he got the lowest number of any candidate who did get votes. Ducheny got 35 votes to 27 for no endorsement.
Later the club debated whether to rate both Ducheny and Vargas “acceptable” — a lower level of support that gets communicated in the club’s own newsletter and mailings but doesn’t allow the club to raise money or offer volunteers to a campaign. The motion to rate Ducheny acceptable passed on a voice vote without audible opposition, but the one for Vargas ran into opposition over his stand on marriage equality. His acceptable rating squeaked through with 36 votes in favor to 21 against — three points over the 60 percent threshold.
The club also debated some less controversial endorsements, including Rick Reyes and Dave Roberts for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, districts 2 and 3, respectively; Mat Kostrinsky for the San Diego City Council, District 7; and Mary Salas and Pamela Bantouzan for the Chula Vista City Council. And before the endorsement debate, William Rodriguez-Kennedy, former chair of the San Diego County Log Cabin Club — the local affiliate of a nationwide organization for Queer Republicans — ceremonially filled out a voter-registration form to re-register as a Democrat.