By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 10, 2007
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 9 -- At the first-ever televised presidential forum devoted to gay rights issues, the Democratic front-runners, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), were sharply questioned on why they do not support same-sex marriage, while the two joined the other candidates in backing civil unions and the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military.
Obama said it is less important to focus on the semantics of the word "marriage" than to focus on equal rights, and Clinton -- responding to a comment by singer Melissa Etheridge that gays were "thrown under the bus" during Bill Clinton's administration -- said "I am a leader now" on gay rights.
Activists were even more frustrated with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who when asked whether people are born gay or choose to be, said, "It's a choice" and later explained, "I'm not a scientist."
At the two-hour event in West Hollywood, Obama was asked several times why he would not back same-sex marriage, and he pledged to ensure that all same-sex couples have the same rights as married couples, the stance adopted by most of the Democrats.
"Semantics may be important to some," he said, adding that if gay couples had equal rights, "then my sense is that's enormous progress."
The forum, organized by the Human Rights Campaign and Logo, a gay-themed television network operated by MTV, underscored the increasing importance of the constituency to the Democratic Party. When a similar forum was held in 2003, one of the top contenders, then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), did not attend, and the event was not televised.
This time, Edwards appeared, along with Obama and four other Democratic candidates who each spent more than 15 minutes taking questions from a four-person panel that included Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, and Etheridge.
When pressed on gay marriage, Edwards said, "My position on same-sex marriage has not changed." He then used the question to challenge the Clinton administration on its approach to gay rights -- and by implication to challenge his rival, Sen. Clinton. " 'Don't ask, don't tell' is not just wrong now, it was wrong when it began," Edwards said.
Clinton took a stance similar to Edwards's and Obama's, not backing marriage but saying she wanted same-sex couples to have equal rights. She also said states were making better progress on gay rights than the federal government.
"I've also been a very strong supporter of letting the states maintain their jurisdiction over marriage," Clinton said.
The event was a love fest for Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio), who backs same-sex marriage. When one panelist, Washington Post editorial writer Jonathan Capehart, asked Kucinich if there was any issue on which he disagreed with the gay rights community, the talkative congressman was left speechless.
"All I can say is keep those contributions coming, and you'll have the president you want," he told the audience.
Kucinich and former senator Mike Gravel (Alaska) were praised for their support of same-sex marriage.
But Obama, who was questioned first by the moderators, appeared frustrated by a question that noted that people under 30 back gay marriage at higher rates than others and asked how he could be "a candidate of change when your stance on same-sex marriage is decidedly old school?"
"Oh, come on, now," Obama said. "I mean, look, guys, you know, I mean, we can have this conversation for the duration of the 15 minutes." He added, "If people are interested in my stance on these issues, I've got a track record of working with the LGBT community."
Richardson was the only candidate who opposes same-sex marriage to acknowledge the complicated politics of the issue.
"The country isn't there yet on gay marriage," he said. "We have to bring the country along."
His comment on the roots of homosexuality drew hisses from the audience of about 200.
Activists say this year's event was a milestone in showing the Democratic candidates' interest in courting the gay and lesbian vote.
"It firmly establishes us a major constituency in the Democratic Party," said David Mixner, a longtime gay rights activist and Democratic fundraiser. "It's a real validation of our position within the party."
Unlike sessions on Saturday with liberal bloggers at the Yearly Kos convention and on Tuesday with labor union members in Chicago, where the candidates sought to win over influential liberal interest groups, the candidates were not on stage at the same time last night. Instead, each of the Democrats took questions separately from the panelists.
Six Democratic candidates appeared, and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), who cited scheduling conflicts as his reason for not coming, said he would post answers to the questions presented at the forum on his campaign's Web site. The only other major Democratic contender to skip the event was Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who also cited scheduling problems. Organizers said they invited several Republican presidential candidates to appear as well, but the GOP hopefuls declined.
Already, the candidates from the two parties have diverged sharply in rhetoric on gay rights issues. During a GOP debate earlier this year, none of the candidates said they would change the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and several have strongly argued that marriage should be defined as being between a man and a woman. The Democrats, on the other hand, have courted gay rights supporters more aggressively than ever.
Clinton has criticized the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, established during her husband's administration, and has offered the line from onetime GOP senator from Arizona and presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater: "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight." In 2003, the future Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), said he did not like the policy but warned that some units might be adversely affected by having gay members.
Edwards released a list of his prominent gay backers on the eve of the forum, as did Obama. Clinton, who had put out a similar list, has had two fundraisers for her gay supporters and planned to attend an event at The Abbey, a well-known gay bar in Los Angeles.
The candidates have not forgotten the complicated politics of gay rights, which may be a popular cause in the Democratic primary but will prove to be a more complicated issue in the general election. Almost a dozen states voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2004, leaving Democrats wondering if those ballot initiatives increased turnout among conservative Republicans.
In March, gay rights activists were infuriated when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace called homosexuality "immoral," and Obama and Clinton at first sidestepped questions about whether they disagreed with Pace's sentiments. At the forum, Clinton called this stance a "mistake," saying she should have rebuked him earlier.