Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
San Diego Democrats for Equality members who were elected delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention
The predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality approved a sweeping set of changes in their endorsement rules May 24 that candidates for office agree with the club 100 percent on marriage equality and women’s reproductive choice before they can be endorsed or rated acceptable. The club’s decision came after two hours of intense debate in which supporters of the rules changes insisted that only by being that strict with candidates can the club truly stand for its principles, including Queer and women’s rights. Opponents argued that the proposed rules were too strict and would penalize candidates whose positions – like President Obama’s until May 9 – were still “evolving.”
The push for the rules changes came as a result of a controversial meeting in February at which the club gave both Denise Moreno Ducheny and Juan Vargas acceptable ratings in the primary for the 51st Congressional District. After Ducheny missed being endorsed by one vote, club members unanimously rated her acceptable and then passed another motion rating Vargas acceptable as well, despite his unwillingness to support marriage equality. Later Vargas cast a deciding committee vote in the California Senate against a Planned Parenthood-sponsored bill by Senator Christine Kehoe to allow nurse practitioners and physician assistants to train to perform abortions. So the club voted at the April meeting to rescind Vargas’s acceptable rating and endorse Ducheny.
After the Vargas fiasco, a number of club members felt the need to rewrite the endorsement rules to make sure something like this didn’t happen again. “I’m really proud of making this motion,” said club mobilization chair Allan Acevedo. “We stand for equality, and we need to reiterate that time and time again. The issues of marriage equality and choice are fundamental to the club. … We are Democrats, but these two things stand out for our community. There are concerns that we will be limited in the candidates we can endorse. I think we will be leading candidates to reflect the changes in the political climate.”
Former club president Craig Roberts, arguing against the rules change, said, “This is about the equality of all the issues we care about as Democrats. Voting against this change is not saying we’re opposed to marriage equality or choice. … I do not advocate that we support candidates who are against marriage equality or are not 100 percent pro-choice. We should make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. … If we change this we might get candidates who lie to us, and then they get elected and we are surprised.”
The club had previously tried a strict endorsement threshold in the 1990’s, when it created a rule that candidates had to be “100 percent pro-choice” in order to qualify for an endorsement, but not an acceptable rating. Back then “100 percent pro-choice” meant supporting a woman’s right to abortion as protected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision and opposing laws requiring women to notify their husbands, or minor girls to notify their parents, before they could have an abortion. At the time, the sponsors of the “100 percent pro-choice” threshold for an an endorsement responded to a question why they weren’t seeking one on Queer issues as well because “it goes without saying” that the club would never endorse a candidate who didn’t support Queer equality.
One veteran club member pointed out that during both of Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaigns, the club had to suspend this rule to endorse him because he favored parental notification laws. This person also noted that under the proposed rule “we couldn’t have endorsed Barack Obama until 15 days ago.” Another club member said that under the new rule the club still would have to suspend the rule to endorse Obama because, while he’s expressed his personal support for marriage equality, the policy position of his administration remains that marriage ought to be left to the individual states to define.
The current San Diego Democrats for Equality issues questionnaire contains 54 items, eight questions about a candidate’s background and 46 about specific issues. The section called “Equal Rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) People” includes three questions about anti-discrimination laws and policies, six about recognizing same-sex relationships, one each about parental rights and military service, and three about whether the candidate would participate in Queer events, hire a Queer person for their staff and publicize the club’s endorsement in their campaign literature.
Ironically, only one of the relationship recognition questions flat-out asks, “Do you support giving same-sex couples the right to legally marry?” The others are about equal access to employment benefits for same-sex and opposite-sex couples; legal recognition of one state’s same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships or civil unions by other states; adoption rights for same-sex couples; and immigration rights for partners of U.S. citizens.
The “Reproductive Choice” section contains eight questions — more than any other single issue — and includes not only “Do you support a woman’s right to reproductive choice?” but government funding for abortions for poor women, access to abortion in military hospitals, parental and spousal notification laws, “laws that require women to [undergo] waiting periods or irrelevant/inaccurate medical information (e.g., ultrasounds, ‘fetal pain’ lectures) in order to obtain an abortion” and two convoluted questions addressing the so-called “gag rules” preventing women both here and abroad from getting information about all their reproductive options, including abortion.
The rest of the club questionnaire includes two questions about women’s rights other than abortion, one asking candidates whether they support affirmative action, three about workers’ right to organize and bargain collectively, three about public education (one about school vouchers and two about outreach to students to keep them from getting STD’s), four about Queer issues in schools, two on the separation of church and state, four about access to health care and five about AIDS.
Club secretary Lyn Gwidzak asked if the new rule would “change how we feel about all the other issues we care about” by essentially telling candidates that marriage equality and reproductive choice are the club’s most important concerns. Other opponents, including union activist Michelle Krug, were concerned that imposing a strict threshold based on questionnaire answers would give too much control over the endorsement process to the people writing the questionnaire.
“I’m not aware that we ever had an opportunity to give feedback on the questionnaire,” Krug said. “Two years ago I tried, because I thought it was hard to understand.” Krug also said that the Kehoe bill that led the club to rescind its acceptable rating for Juan Vargas was a controversial one that wasn’t supported by all pro-choice activists. She said the California Nurses’ Association had opposed it because they didn’t think it offered enough safeguards for patients, and argued that the club had been maneuvered into supporting one side in a turf war between two pro-choice organizations.
Supporters of the new rule generally described it in moral terms as an expression of the club’s commitment to its core values. “I came tonight specifically because there should be a threshold,” said California State Assemblymember Toni Atkins. “We are the Gay Democratic club, and in this day and time it’s popular — even for Republican mayors — to come out for Gay marriage. There’s a difference between policy issues like single-payer [replacing private health insurance with a government-funded insurance program] and a living wage, and marriage equality and reproductive choice. As a woman, I hope we would understand how these are linked.”
“I very strongly believe we should have a threshold,” said former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Maureen Steiner. “I can’t imagine someone coming here expecting an endorsement when they’re not for marriage equality or not pro-choice.” Steiner said that she didn’t think the threshold should apply to acceptable ratings — a lower level of support the club can give in races where no endorsable Democrat is running, the club generally likes a candidate but has significant issue differences with him or her, or more than one supportable candidate is running in a race. But backers of the full rule were able to use parliamentary maneuvers to prevent the club from voting on whether to amend the rule to apply it only to endorsements and not acceptable ratings.
Howard Menzer of Scouting for All, opposing the rule, said, “I’m all for reproductive choice and marriage equality, but the moment you put up a threshold, people will stop coming and you won’t have the opportunity to find out what they think about other things.”
Greg Bolian had a similar concern. “The bylaws state the club’s mission is to secure for all LGBT [Queer] people equal human rights and to foster the ideals of the Democratic Party,” he said. “Do we get there by saying we’re not going to talk to you if you don’t agree already? We got Obama to ‘evolve’ by talking to him.” Bolian also pointed to one problem with an endorsement threshold: that it may be a major handicap to candidates running in more conservative areas. “It’s difficult enough for a Democrat running for office in Santee,” he explained, “and if we have someone who could win against Duncan Hunter, who’s right on some of our issues, we’d want to be able to endorse them.”
“I’m glad that the club is taking a moral stand,” said Jonathan Goetz. “Too often, this club’s endorsement decisions are based on who has the most money or who is the most ‘electable.’” But as one of the candidates Bolian was talking about — he’s running for office in El Cajon — he questioned whether the original rule’s requirement of a 75 percent vote to endorse somebody who wasn’t totally in accord with the club’s positions on marriage equality or reproductive choice was too high.
In the one serious amendment to the proposal its supporters actually allowed to come to a vote, the 75 percent threshold for endorsing someone as an exception to the rule was lowered to two-thirds. If the club wishes to consider endorsing or giving an acceptable rating to a candidate who doesn’t answer all 14 relationship-rights or reproductive-choice questions in accord with the club’s position, it will first take a two-thirds vote to suspend the rule and then a two-thirds vote to approve the endorsement or the rating. The new rule will take effect immediately, though club officials said they weren’t aware of any candidate it had endorsed or rated acceptable for the June primary whose endorsement or rating would have to be reconsidered for the November election under the new rule.