Gay Rights Group Stirs Flap With D'Amato Nod
By Edward Walsh
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay rights organization, has provoked a storm of protest from some of its members with a decision to endorse Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) in his reelection campaign against Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
One member of HRC's board of directors, Marylouise Oates, resigned in protest after the board voted 15 to 7 Tuesday to back D'Amato in one of the closest and hardest-fought Senate races in the country. "I simply cannot be a part of any enterprise that seeks to reelect an anti-choice senator with a long record of hostility and indifference to women's issues and to the fundamental issues of civil rights for African Americans and other minorities," Oates said in a letter to Elizabeth Birch, HRC's executive director.
The most intense and negative reaction to the endorsement was in New York, where polls show Schumer holding about a 3 to 1 lead over D'Amato among gay voters. Most of the state's gay rights leaders have endorsed Schumer. "There are a lot of angry people out there," said Winnie Stachelberg, HRC's political director.
But leaders of the organization that historically has supported Democrats also defended the D'Amato endorsement, arguing that it was consistent with a long-standing policy to support incumbents who have a good record on gay issues. In an "open letter" to members signed by Birch and HRC's co-chairmen, Jeff Sachse and Candy Marcum, the leaders acknowledged that the endorsement "will not be met with widespread approval among members and friends."
But, they added, "as a Republican in a Republican-controlled Senate, Sen. D'Amato has taken personally and politically unpopular positions in defense of the dignity, rights and contributions of gay and lesbian Americans. For these positions, he has paid a price and, in our estimation, has earned the privilege of an HRC endorsement based on incumbency. And for HRC to change our rules or precedents at this moment, or to withhold support of Sen. D'Amato because his opponent is a friend of our cause, would meet the test not of honor but of hypocrisy."
In a telephone interview, Sachse said most HRC members "understand that this was the right decision. We have to pursue a bipartisan strategy. Like any effective political organization, we have to develop a relationship with both parties."
Several HRC officials noted that the organization faced a similar dilemma during the 1996 Senate race between Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld (R), whom Stachelberg described as "a true folk hero" to the gay community. In the end, HRC endorsed Kerry.
Rumors of the D'Amato endorsement had circulated before Tuesday's board vote, and the White House and other Schumer allies tried strenuously to head it off. Richard Socarides, White House liaison to the gay community, said "we were disappointed with their decision."
"You don't have to be a political professional to know that a vote for Al D'Amato is a vote to make Trent Lott the next Senate majority leader," Socarides added. "He [Lott] more than anyone else has prevented us from getting legislation on hate crimes this year, from allowing employment discrimination legislation to come up, and he almost single-handedly blocked the nomination" of gay businessman James C. Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg.
Oates, the board member who resigned, is a longtime activist for gay rights and the wife of Democratic media consultant Robert Shrum. She declined yesterday to elaborate beyond her resignation letter. But another dissenting board member, Barry Karas, said they had unsuccessfully argued for an endorsement of both D'Amato and Schumer.
"I was not happy with the fact that, even though [D'Amato] has a 75 percent record with us, he has an 82 percent voting record with the Christian Coalition," Karas said. "In many cases, the Christian Coalition is anti-gay and I felt in a way we would be sleeping with the enemy."
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