Q-Notes examines the candidates — Part two of a multi-part series
by David Stout . Q-Notes staff
Over several issues we’re spotlighting the Democratic presidential candidates in preparation for primary season. (Our opening installment on Sen. Hillary Clinton can be read online at www.q-notes.com.) The first Democratic primary occurs in Iowa on Jan. 3. South Carolina holds the earliest in the South on Jan. 26. The North Carolina Democratic primary takes place May 6.
We have made an editorial decision to limit our coverage to the Democrats because, vis-à-vis LGBT issues, the leading Republican candidates range from woefully lacking to openly hostile, or they’re Rudy Giuliani, an Iraq war hawk. Either way, the GOP slate is a disappointment and not worthy of consideration in our opinion.
Barack Obama is a name most Americans hadn’t heard before the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Then the Illinois state legislator and U.S. Senate hopeful delivered the keynote address at the Boston D-Party, riveting the faithful with his powerful oratory.
At one point he stated, “The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.”
The LGBT community swooned along with the rest of America. Literally overnight Obama was the rising star within the Democratic Party.
His standing was cemented in November the same year. He crushed his Republican opponent, receiving 70 percent of the vote, despite the national political climate that allowed the GOP to gain Congressional seats. “Obama for president” became a common refrain in Democratic circles.
United we stand
Barack (“blessed” in Swahili) Hussein Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a Kenyan father (Barack Obama, Sr.) and an American mother. They met while attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa and split when Obama Jr. was two. He stayed with his mother, who later married an Indonesian student, while his father enrolled at Harvard.
In 1967, at the age of six, Obama moved with his family to Jakarta. He remained there four years before returning to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents.
Following high school, Obama earned a B.A. in political science from Columbia University. After a stint in Chicago working as a community organizer, he entered Harvard Law School in 1988 — where he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in its 104-year history. He graduated with his J.D. degree in 1991 and returned to the Windy City.
In the ensuing years Obama worked as a community activist, civil rights attorney and professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He served in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004, when he entered the U.S. Senate.
Barack Obama has built a ‘big tent’
campaign, but LGBT voters aren’t sure it’s big enough for them anymore.
He has penned two best-selling books: a 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father” (Obama Sr. died in an automobile accident in 1992), and a discourse on American politics titled “The Audacity of Hope.”
Obama has been a stalwart Democrat in the Senate — working to end the Iraq war while sponsoring legislation for additional medical services for wounded vets, challenging the administration’s clampdown on civil liberties, such as voting against extending the wiretapping provision of The Patriot Act, and voting for the Party’s successful bid to raise the minimum wage to $7.25.
He voted against the Supreme Court confirmations of right-wingers Sam Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts, and against permanently repealing the inheritance tax and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He opposes privatization of Social Security and supports election reform and limits on lobbyist influence.
Obama was also an original co-sponsor of the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, approved by the Senate Sept. 27. The measure seeks to expand the definition of hate crimes to include those motivated by the sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability of the victim. President Bush has vowed to veto the bill.
Obama said in a statement, “Today’s vote is a victory for all of us in upholding basic rights and protections in this country. I urge the president to reconsider his veto threat and support this legislation. Passing this bill will help us live up to the principle that in this country, we treat all of our citizens with dignity and respect.”
This “big tent” approach has been the basic theme of Obama’s primary campaign for the Democratic nomination. He has positioned himself as the Party’s uniter — the one candidate who can bridge the differences between communities, constituencies and ideologies.
His message has been popular. National polls place Obama solidly in second place among the field of Democratic hopefuls — behind Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton who leads by a comfortable margin at press time.
Support for Obama’s political leitmotif has also translated into formidable fundraising. According to opensecrets.org, his war chest stands at $80 million to date. Clinton is the standard-bearer with $90 million.
Particularly impressive is how strong Obama’s fundraising has been among the grassroots and netroots. Twenty-three percent of his repository has come from donors of $200 or less. On the other hand, Clinton has raised just 12 percent of her total from these funders.
Without doubt LGBT Democrats have been important contributers to Obama’s primary bid. Given his progressive voting record and unwavering support of civil unions, employment non-discrimination including transgender protections, and his call for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it’s easy to see why many of them rallied under his canopy.
Sadly, after the anti-gay debacle that engulfed his campaign last month, it’s equally easy to see why many now feel like they were tossed out on their ears.
Divided we fall
For a significant number of LGBT and allied Democrats, Obama seems like a different candidate than he did just a few weeks ago. The turning point was the “Embrace The Change” gospel tour of South Carolina. Obama’s campaign presented the three-city tour the weekend of Oct. 26-28 to shore up support among the state’s black evangelicals.
Political pundits agree that securing the conservative base is key for Obama to have any hope of winning South Carolina because Sen. Clinton has the backing of progressive black Democrats in the state.
When it was revealed that “ex-gay” singer Rev. Donnie McClurkin would be featured at the Oct. 28 show in Columbia, many within the LGBT community were dismayed because the gospel star says homosexuality is a “curse” and worse.
“The gloves are off and if there’s going to be a war, there’s going to be a war,” he once proclaimed. “But it will be a war with a purpose. I’m not in the mood to play with those who are trying to kill our children.”
Leaders from LGBT organizations and welcoming faith groups asked the campaign to remove McClurkin and denounce his homophobic rhetoric. Obama declined to oust the singer but said in a release, “I have clearly stated my belief that gays and lesbians are our brothers and sisters and should be provided the respect, dignity, and rights of all other citizens.”
The campaign added that a gay or allied minister would appear at the show. In the end, this conciliatory move further fanned the flames of discontent — staffers selected a gay white minister to open the black gospel event.
“It boggles the mind that the Obama campaign would select a white pastor to deal with a situation that is awash in black homophobia,” Pam Spaulding, an African-American lesbian, wrote on her award-winning blog, Pam’s House Blend. “A white pastor under these circumstances can only be seen as paternalistic and patronizing. The shields of defensiveness will go up, the message will be ignored.”
And it was, according to reports. The Rev. Andy Sidden of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ prayed to a half-empty auditorium at the start of the evening; McClurkin was greeted with cheers when his homophobic remarks were issued without challenge later on.
Obama’s reputation for uniting people has taken a severe hit. Through his campaign’s complete mishandling of the situation, the notion of many black evangelicals that “gay equals white” has potentially been further entrenched. The already strained relationship between the LGBT community and the black community has possibly been further destabilized. And, perhaps worst of all, African-American LGBT people, who already have to fight being marginalized, were forced even further afield.
A full apology for this fiasco has repeatedly been sought. However, Obama appears to have marked the subject closed and moved on. If that’s the case, he has underestimated the lingering animus among gay, bisexual and transgender voters.
Judging by the discussions at several high-traffic, progressive blogs — Pam’s House Blend, Americablog, Daily Kos, The Huffington Post — a race-changing percentage of Obama’s queer supporters have switched to backing another candidate or are considering it.
Without the concerted support of this high-turnout voter bloc, securing the Democratic nomination will be a far greater challenge for Obama. In the end, he might be left wondering whether his tent was big enough after all.