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The Best Man?

New York's Senate race has left national gay leaders in a painful bind: Will they reward the Senate's most pro-gay Republican or back his more reliable Democratic rival?

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Which senator has gay-rights activists in Washington, D.C., in his thrall this year?

If you guessed Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, John Kerry, or Pat Moynihan, you guessed wrong. This fall, the darling of the largest gay organization in America -- the man the leaders of the Human Rights Campaign are most eager to endorse for re-election in 1998 -- is none other than Al D'Amato.

Talk about strange bedfellows. Despite his 92 percent approval rating from the Christian Coalition and his conservative record -- not to mention the key role he played in installing the main impediment to gay-rights legislation in New York, State Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno -- despite all that, many of the savviest gay leaders in Washington and New York believe the HRC should embrace Al D'Amato this year.

And that's true even though everyone agrees on which major-party candidate for the Senate has a better record on gay rights. According to HRC's own scorecard, that would be Democratic nominee Chuck Schumer, by a substantial margin.

All of which is causing the greatest political uproar in years inside the gay community. "Chuck Schumer's record speaks volumes more in favor of our interests," said Jeffrey Tooke, chairman of the New York State Federation of Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs. "I would be appalled if HRC endorsed D'Amato," Tooke added, predicting that "many New Yorkers" might leave HRC over this issue.

The gay vote could be crucial if this year's Senate race is as close as it was six years ago, when D'Amato defeated Bob Abrams by a single percentage point. Exit polls in 1993 put the gay vote in New York City at 7.9 percent -- more than enough to determine the outcome in a tight statewide election.

People like Tooke believe that a D'Amato endorsement would be an unforgivable betrayal of the movement's traditional commitment to a broader liberal agenda. But plenty of veteran gay Democrats disagree with Tooke -- even though most of them are still planning to vote for Schumer themselves. To these self-described political realists, HRC's willingness to endorse D'Amato is a symbol of the movement's coming-of-age.

The reason for this extraordinary disconnect is the remarkable transformation Al D'Amato has undergone on gay issues over the past five years. D'Amato's close friend Ed Koch traces the beginning of the senator's new sensitivity to the loss of one of his senior staff members and close friends, who died several years ago after a long battle with AIDS.

On election night in 1992, Koch saw D'Amato embrace the staff member, who was crying tears of joy. The senator was crying, too. "I am crying because he has AIDS and he's dying," the senator told Koch that night. "I will miss him." The following year, HRC staffers asked Koch to intervene with D'Amato, to try to persuade the senator to come out in favor of gays in the military. "Before I could say anything to him," Koch recalls, Al said, 'I just came back from the floor. What do they mean they can't serve?' He'd already made up his mind." Just six days after Clinton was inaugurated, D'Amato declared in the Senate, "No government has the right to discriminate against any of its own people. Gays and heterosexuals have served in the military in the past with honor, and they will continue to serve honorably together in the future. I support allowing gays in the military. It's that simple."

D'Amato says his commitment to gay rights is related to the discrimination his father experienced when he couldn't get a job as a teacher because of his Italian surname. When Clinton's proposal to allow gays to serve openly in the military was first debated in the Senate, "I don't know if there were any other elected Republicans in Congress who came out and said very strongly, 'This is right,' " D'Amato recalls. "What happens is that some of our colleagues just get a little too intolerant. You don't have to endorse somebody's lifestyle. But you have to respect differences."

Soon after, D'Amato voted in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and which failed in the Senate by a single vote (50-49). Then he appeared before a luncheon meeting of HRC to announce that he would also become a co-sponsor of the bill. There he made a rousing speech in support of gay rights.

"He gave a wonderful speech about the journey he has gone on over the years in learning more about gay and lesbian issues," says HRC political director Winnie Stachelberg, who is the prime supporter of D'Amato's endorsement.

D'Amato has also fought hard for increased AIDS funding. And last summer, he publicly rebuked Senate majority leader Trent Lott for blocking the confirmation of philanthropist James Hormel as United States ambassador to Luxembourg solely because he was gay. "On a personal level, I am embarrassed that . . . the party of Lincoln, is . . . the force behind this injustice," he wrote to Lott.

Perhaps most important of all, D'Amato stands practically alone among senior Republicans in attacking his party for its recent revival of a time-honored tactic: scapegoating gays to try to win votes at election time, a strategy that dates back to the McCarthy era (when congressional committees hounded even more homosexuals than Communists out of the State Department). In the fall of 1980, Christians for Reagan blanketed the South with a little-noticed but highly effective series of TV spots attacking the Democrats because their national platform called for an end to discrimination on the basis of "sex or sexual orientation." After those ads, Jimmy Carter's support among born-again Christians collapsed. And in 1992, Bush staff members privately confided to reporters that they planned to use the issue again because of Clinton's support for gays in the military. The only thing that changed their minds was the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Pat Buchanan's gay-bashing that summer at the Republican National Convention.

Earlier this year, Trent Lott revived the tradition when he bowed to pressure from the religious right and compared homosexuals to "alcoholics and kleptomaniacs." Once again, Al D'Amato won the hearts of gay activists in Washington by quickly attacking his leader's rhetorical excesses.

Winnie Stachelberg's key ally in her fight to get HRC's endorsement for D'Amato is her boss, Elizabeth Birch, who left her job as an in-house counsel at Apple to become HRC's executive director. In the past three years, Birch has helped boost HRC's membership from 85,000 to 250,000 and more than doubled its budget to $13 million. She has been especially successful at cementing an alliance with the White House: When Bill Clinton addressed an HRC fund-raiser a year ago, he became the first sitting president to address a gay organization.


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