The Best Man?

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.

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.”

The Best Man?