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The Best Man?

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The main problem for HRC is that while D'Amato may be a hero to gay activists in Washington, he remains a rather dubious figure to some of their counterparts in New York. Earlier this fall, Stachelberg and Birch organized a meeting in Manhattan between D'Amato and twenty representatives of some gay advocacy groups here. Though Stachelberg denies it, many attendees believe the meeting was called in an attempt to soften up the New Yorkers before HRC announces its support for D'Amato. According to Matt Foreman, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the leading gay-lobbying group in New York, the Manhattan meeting focused on the "disconnect between Senator D'Amato's record in Washington and the homophobia of the state Republican party." Although many people believe D'Amato can get the Republican-controlled State Senate to do whatever he likes -- and therefore ought to be able to get a gay-civil-rights law passed in New York State -- D'Amato, predictably, denies having such power. "His response was essentially that he has less influence than people think, and that he can only engage in so many fights," says Foreman.

Urvashi Vaid, a veteran activist who now directs the policy-institute think tank for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, also attended the meeting. Vaid would prefer to see Schumer in the Senate, but she says D'Amato made "a compelling case for why he can be an effective advocate for the gay movement because of his seniority. I believe he's sincere in his support for gay equality." But what disturbs her about endorsing him is his opposition to abortion.

"HRC can make a very credible case for why it might endorse D'Amato because they basically use a single-issue screen: What is the candidate's record on gay rights?" says Vaid. "A lot of what politics is about is moving people who are horrible on our issues, moving them along to take better and better positions. And Senator D'Amato has been one of the few leaders in the national Republican party willing to take public stands in support of gay and lesbian issues."

Ethan Geto agrees with Vaid, and no one in New York State has a more distinguished record of fighting for gay rights than Geto. His public life as a gay activist began when he was working for then-Bronx borough president Bob Abrams. In 1971, just two years after the Stonewall riot, Geto persuaded Abrams to become one of the very first public officials to endorse the gay-civil-rights bill that had been introduced in the City Council. Six years ago, Geto managed Abrams's unsuccessful Senate campaign against D'Amato. And this year, he is voting for Schumer. But he has no problem at all with HRC's desire to endorse D'Amato.

"So many people say to me, 'Can you believe HRC will endorse Al D'Amato?' " says Geto. "When you look at gun control, abortion, and a host of broader issues, many of HRC's constituents, including me, would prefer Schumer. But then you look at HRC's mission. They're there to get pro-gay legislation passed to protect the interests of the gay and lesbian communities and make policy advances on behalf of gay people. There's only one way they're going to do it: They have to attract moderate Republicans."

Now D'Amato has "signed on to the core of HRC's agenda," Geto continues. "He's gone against expectations. The guy cooperates withthem, gives them information and makes his staff accessible, and works to get other Republicans on board. If HRC fails to endorse him, how will they ever get the support of another Republican again? The next guy will say, 'Jesus Christ, Al D'Amato walked the plank for you guys. And you turned around and spit in his face!' "

But Democratic Congressman Barney Frank vehemently disagrees. The senior gay legislator in Congress thinks an HRC endorsement of D'Amato would be "a very grave error. It's an outdated notion of an almost terrified group. There is this lean-over-backwards effort with Republicans now. If anybody not in our group is ever nice to us, we are just absolutely in thrall to them. But if you have two equally good candidates running, don't waste your money." Frank thinks HRC shouldn't endorse anyone in this race.

He feels HRC may have adopted some of the corporate culture of a commercial-lobbying firm in the capital. "If you're pursuing an economic interest, which is a valid thing to do, then ideology is irrelevant, and you try to sort of get equal leverage with each party," he said. "But when you're talking about fundamental ideological issues where the parties are very different, it's a mistake not to take that into account. The Christian Coalition doesn't make that mistake -- they know that they're better off with Republicans."

Naturally, the person most angry about HRC's plan is Democratic nominee Chuck Schumer. Overall, Schumer has a much longer and more consistent record in support of gay rights than D'Amato. But on one crucial issue they voted together: in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which proclaimed that neither the Federal government nor any state has to recognize gay marriage if one state decides to legitimize it. And that single vote may have given HRC the cover it needs to support D'Amato.

Schumer says D'Amato has a better scorecard from the Christian Coalition than he does from HRC -- "and the Christian Coalition is right now bashing gays and lesbians." The congressman says his record is not "just a voting record -- it's a record of passing laws," including legislation to get special funds to housebound people with AIDS. "Everyone knows in the Senate that D'Amato is disingenuous on all of this," says Schumer. "It's all for show." If he really cared about gay rights, "he would have gotten the New York State Senate to pass the anti-discrimination bill," which Senate majority leader Bruno has never allowed onto the floor. "But he didn't. It's all a sham. They're falling for an elaborate act that goes onstage once every six years -- just before election time."


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