It's a big moment for the Log Cabin Republicans — the group is strategizing for the November election, battling with state GOP parties to stop antigay language from being added to their various platforms, and its lawsuit against "don't ask, don't tell," launched by Log Cabin years ago, heads to a California court July 13. Amid all this, R. Clarke Cooper took the reins as Log Cabin's executive director less than a month ago. An Army Reserve captain and former staffer for George W. Bush, Cooper most recently served as chief of staff at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Now, ensconced in his new position, Cooper discussed the future of Log Cabin and how he's working to end DADT and change the Republican Party from within.
The Advocate: There's been a wave of virulent antigay and antitransgender GOP platforms being released from Texas to Montana to Idaho. What's LCR's take on that?
R. Clarke Cooper: In many cases, these platforms are draft documents. I know that’s not the direction the national party is going in. Looking to 2010, the GOP is looking for a more inclusive party focused on core conservative issues that are not social issues: individual liberties, individual responsibility, strong defense.
That’s not the direction Log Cabin wants the party, and I can’t imagine big R, wants the party going. The platforms didn’t even follow the normal protocol of being confirmed by the state party. That came out from a small group of folks who did not consult with the larger group. Externally, it caused a firestorm. Internally, it caused a lot of issue. You’d be hard-pressed to find any elected official who would put their arm around [the Texas] platform.
What made you want to take the job at LCR?
I didn't choose to be gay, I chose to be a Republican. I am a Republican. I am also a gay man. There's obviously a lot of work to do in education and communication on both sides. Republicans are voters, donors, elected leaders; you don't have to be mutually exclusive, just like one does not have to be mutually exclusive as being a person of faith and being gay or lesbian, and the same can be applied with politics as well. Part of that is that there's this attitude my late father always had about any organization, it doesn't matter if it's a scout troop or the PTA, if you want it to effect any kind of reform, the best way to do that is to be inside. Because if you're not inside there's not very much you can do except make observations. But if you're there, you actually have a greater role and a greater responsibility to engage and bring about whatever kind of change you want to see happen.
What kind of goals have you set for yourself and for Log Cabin?
I walked into this fallow field that needed to be tilled, and so from an internal aspect, there's a lot that needs to be done for our current membership. You've got like 30,000 to 40,000 gay and lesbian Republicans who make up the Log Cabin Republican body at large and our chapters across the country. Those people need to be tended to. On the external side, there's a lot of reconciliation that needs to be done with the Republican national committee — having the party getting back to core, conservative principles of individual liberty, individual responsibility, free-market economy, strong national defense, foreign policy, advancing U.S. interests, tax reform. But getting us back to those principles versus looking at or worrying about identity politics, social issues, or issues that would be divisive to conservatives is important. There's the internal aspect of rallying the troops, taking care of what I call the party faithful — gay and lesbians who feel like they've not had an active role in the organization. Getting them reenergized. Getting them back into the larger body and partnership with the Republican National Committee. But also holding the party accountable so we can't be taken advantage of.
The first week on the job, I was called to the RNC and participated in an event called Remembering Reagan at the invitation of chairman Michael Steele. It probably has helped LCR that I'm a Bush-Cheney alumnus, so I have the bona fides, or party credentials. I served in the Bush administration as on openly gay appointee, by the way, served Jeb Bush, started out my political career serving Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida.
I've not even been on the job a full month, but my goal as far as making us more relevant is two-pronged — reenergizing our current membership base and getting the number of disaffected gay and lesbian voters who have been registered Republicans but either, for very good reasons, walked away from the party or felt like the party walked away from them, and building that bridge again. I hope to reestablish activity between Log Cabin Republicans and the RNC. In my short time on the job, I'm proud to say we've disbursed political action committee funding to a number of Republican candidates, but of course we're doing it in a fashion that is, "Are they Republicans who are good on touchstone issues for LCR voters: repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' positive stance on marriage equality, a positive stance on domestic-partnership benefits?" These members include, again, my old boss, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Charles Djou, the newest member to the House, not only the newest Republican, but the newest member at all from Hawaii. Joseph Cao, we just gave him a check this week. He represents a district down in Louisiana, actually includes a big chunk of New Orleans. I'm going to be giving another PAC check to Judy Biggert from Illinois. That's another way of communicating and messaging to the party that we're serious and can provide additional boots on the ground. For that to work, we're going to reward the members that are working with us.
Editor's Note: Initially, the article asserted that Cooper said he did not choose to be Republican. He actually stated that he did choose.
My first week on the job was the week the Senate [Armed Services] Committee voted on the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." The week of May 25, the full House voted on the Murphy amendment [adding DADT repeal] to the defense authorization bill, so I had a shotgun start. I did not have a honeymoon. I was spending my time meeting with committee members and Republican leadership. One of the things I was doing was gathering the number of Republicans at different tiers — some who said they would vote for the Murphy amendment, others who said they couldn't vote for the full amendment but would vote for the full bill. And others who would may be just absent or present at that time. Again, I'm proud to say we did get some votes. I'm convinced we could have gotten more at different levels had I been on the job longer, but it was the best I could do with such a tight window. I'm currently doing follow-up on the Senate, and I've met with nine Senate offices this week regarding follow-up on the full Senate vote. Next week I have another seven appointments set up throughout the week.
On one hand, it's easy. I only have to focus on Republicans. But nonetheless, it's the high volume of folks to meet with. We have some members who voted, for example, in the House, for the defense bill, but they didn't vote for the amendment. Of course I had a number of chapter presidents quite upset, justifiably, why certain members didn't vote for the amendment but voted for the bill, and as you've seen happen, some of the primaries have been very difficult. This is where I have to look at members of Congress in shades of gray because everything isn't black-and-white. So, not that these are official tiers, but my tier 1 Republicans, we don't have to worry about. They're the ones we can always count on. They are the Susan Collins [the gay-friendly senator from Maine] of the world, they are the Ron Pauls (the Texas congressman), or the Ileana Ros-Lehtinens.
Then there's the tier 2 members who have said good things in the press or on floor statements or have a good voting record on certain items like Todd Platts of Pennsylvania or Mary Bono Mack of California. They're good some of the time. And they can be brought along further.
Tier 3, which are a majority of Republicans, and from what I know of them, they are the ones who need a lot of education. They've never met with anyone from the Human Rights Campaign, but they are people who are willing to have the dialogue, and they have some very basic questions. Like "Is being gay a choice?" But they need to have somebody that they can reach out to. I've had a number of offices that I've walked into and I'm the first person to sit down with some of these members just to have basic conversations about the LGBT community, let alone legislation or public policy. And they're the ones who are probably going to take the most time on the education front. Their questions are so basic. I had one member I've known for years, and when I walked in his office and he said, "When did this all happen?" And I said, "When did I start? Monday." And he said, "No. When did you decide to be gay?"
Tier 4, the bottom rung, those are your realarch conservatives. They're the ones who have a history of rhetoric and have what some would call hateful statements and hateful positions. I'm not going to rule them out because I will meet with any and every Republican that I can. But for now, for expediency, I'm focusing on the tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3 members of Congress.
What are the chances of Republican senators filibustering the "don't ask, don't tell" legislation?
I think the filibuster is off because there's no interest in supporting that, and I know [Sen. John] McCain's office finally came out saying, "We're not going there," and if they haven't said it, they will. But I know that every office I met with thought the filibuster was a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. You know, a filibuster would not have only been an issue for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," it would have caused greater problems with the larger defense authorization package. And so, there's this whole issue of, Do Republicans want to be perceived as the party of no on what is known as a must-pass piece of legislation? I can honestly say not one of the members or their staff that I met with indicated that they supported that.
One of the things I've asked when I meet with Republicans on "don't ask, don't tell" is, "If you're not comfortable in publicly stating your position on on the repeal, as far as being for it, or if certain votes at a certain time aren't comfortable for you, at a minimum, could you ensure that you or any staffers make sure nothing comes out that can be perceived as antirepeal or pro-ban on gay and lesbians in the service?" So that's a consistent promise across the board, House and Senate, where the members I have talked to have said, "Yes, you won't hear rhetoric from me." The really smart members are understanding that being antigay these days is an exploding cigar and not a winning proposition.
Another consistency in Republican members is all of them want to see the commission report, being led by Gen. Carter Ham, brought to fruition. I have no reason to think that we won't have repeal. It's gonna happen.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming LCR trial against DADT?
Here's what I tell members of Congress when discussing the LCR v. U.S. case: "As with a military campaign, it is necessary to conduct multiple operations to achieve victory. The legislative process, the judicial process, and the executive review process are complementary operations and are not mutually exclusive of each other. Log Cabin Republicans is covering terrain in each theater. We are lobbying Republican members of Congress, have an active court case, and are consulting with the Department of Defense." Regarding the trial, the legislative calendar will determine my ability to be present at the trial. Based on recent calendar predictions from members of Congress and their staff, I should be able to be off Capitol Hill for the trial date.
John McCain was endorsed by LCR for president in 2008 but has since turned his back on gay rights. What's your take on him?
Not only am I surprised by Senator McCain's position on DADT, so are the members of the Senate. I'm not going to throw anybody under the bus. A number of his peers were surprised by that change. Because if you look back at '08, he was a relatively easy endorsement for Log Cabin because he was on record for supporting repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." And there had been public statements and indicators on issues of domestic- partnership benefits and marriage equality. And Cindy McCain, even during the campaign trail, was out there courting the gay and lesbian vote. And Meghan McCain was doing the same. I haven't got a chance to just sit down and ask him, "What happened?" But I do plan to do that. I've heard members of the Senate and also House members who are close to him say, you know, he's in a rough primary. That seems to be a constant. He hasn't said that, of course. All I can do is contribute my drumbeat of messaging to Senator McCain and say, "Sir, as a fellow Republican, as a fellow combat veteran, I encourage you to vote in favor of repeal." It's kind of unusual, actually a reversal because our focus has been getting Republicans to evolve from positions from being either antigay or not engaged and getting them to evolve in the direction of support. This is counter to what the trend has been.
What is your stance on the Tea Party?
I don't know. The Tea Party movement is every stripe of life. You've got people in there who are upper-middle-class. You have working class. You have paycheck-to-paycheck people. It's not a single economic demographic. What I don't think has been measured is how many Tea Party voters are registered to vote. If they're registered, are these people who changed to independent at some point? They're not one particular party. You know what's interesting? They've been called conservatives or Republicans, but they're not, because the Tea Party is just as angry at the RNC as they are at the DNC. They're angry, they're scared. But they're not affiliated with anybody. So one of the questions for a Tea Party member is, "What do you suggest? How do you want to contribute?"
Let's talk about theoil spill. I know it's become a partisan issue.
It shouldn't be.
From a Republican vantage point, how closely should BP be responsible for the cleanup? Not just in the spill, but in the repercussions that are going to take place along the coast.
They should be responsible. I'll give you an example of a Republican friend and colleague and somebody really affected hard by this is Jeff Miller from Florida. He's a very conservative Republican. He's on the House Armed Services Committee. He and I don't see eye to eye on everything, but we talked to each other, and I know that Congressman Miller, his district is directly affected. This is district 1 of Florida, Pensacola Beach, they have tar balls showing up on the beach, the seafood industry is affected, there is certainly a direct correlation between consequence of this disaster and the need for compensation restitution. I honestly don't think that the federal agencies, that the executive side, no matter if it's regulatory or not, really don't have an idea as to what the economic impact is. That's what the frustration is on both sides of the aisle, to use a military term, what are the second and third effects of this oil spill. No one really knows just yet. Everyone does know, however, that there are the immediate effects, certain fishing zones have been shut down. The tourist industry in certain coastal areas has been affected. That's money not being spent on hotel rooms, charter boats, house leasing, restaurants, you name it. There's that whole chain of events that affects economies in that area. I think you'd be hard-pressed, really, to find any member of Congress, or any governor of a Gulf Coast state, who would think that BP didn't have a responsibility to pay back or pay for damages caused by the oil spill.
Tell me about the upcoming election. Are their certain races you're keeping an eye on? Is there an LCR hope that the GOP will retake the House or Senate?
We'd like to see more Republicans elected to Congress. However, we don't want to have additional members join the Congress with R next to their name that are going to treat the LGBT community like a piñata. We had a double victory in Charles Djou. Because I was able to tell the minority leader, John Boehner, at a fund-raiser for Charles Djou, "You know, Mr. Boehner, I'm proudly here today as the head of Log Cabin Republicans giving additional funds to Djou's campaign for reelection in November because he not only is a good Republican, he actually is solid as far as seeing gays and lesbians as full members of society and we should have full civil rights as everyone else." That's the kind of Republican we need to recruit more of.
What is your take on California congresswoman Mary Bono Mack? She's running against an openly gay man, Steve Pougnet, and I know Mary's had a kind of inconsistent record with LGBT ...
Pretty darn good [laughs]. Very good. actually. Well, go ahead, I'm sorry, I jumped in your question.
My understanding is she voted against the repeal, so does that change...
She voted for the bill [but against the Patrick Murphy–sponsored repeal amendment]. This is the part of my job that sucks. There was the vote on the amendment, and I would say there were members, I said if you can't vote on the amendment or say a floor speech or statement saying the Murphy amendment is the best thing since sliced bread, because we know Mr. Murphy's a Democrat, fine, fine, fine. But would you at least vote for the defense authorization bill, because if we don't get the bill passed, then it doesn't matter who votes for the Murphy amendment. So Mary Bono Mack was one of those additional Republicans who said, "I currently cannot vote for that amendment, but you've got me for the bill. And of course, my record stands or where I've been on LGBT issues, and you're going to continue to have me." When you look at the strategy, you have to look at it this way. She did vote for us on the bill. She does have a good record and frankly, I would love to see her come back to Congress because she is also in-house recruitment for us. She's in-house advocacy. I can't put a price on what Mary Bono Mack does in the Congress as far as helping me carry my message — that being gay or lesbian isn't mutually exclusive to being a conservative, being a person of faith, and being Republican. She does that every day. And I'm not a member of Congress. It would have been ideal if she'd voted on the amendment and the bill, but she did vote for the bill.