By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com June 23 2009 11:00 PM ET
Democratic representative Jared Polis of Colorado was the only gay congressional member who didn't attend President Barack Obama's signing ceremony last week of a presidential memorandum extending some benefits to gay federal employees' same-sex partners, but he says many observers have read too much into his absence. Polis took time out to speak with The Advocate about his Oval Office no-show, why he will attend the LGBT Democratic National Committee fund-raiser this Thursday, and his frustration with the slow pace of ending "don't ask, don't tell."
The Advocate:Why didn't you attend the Oval Office signing of the presidential memo extending certain benefits to same-sex partners of federal workers?Rep. Jared Polis: We just found out about it the day of and we let the White House know at that time that we wouldn't be able to make it. There was a congressional baseball game that I had been practicing for for many months. It was at National Stadium that night and we won 15 to 10. I got a sacrifice fly [run batted in] and a single.
I hear the Democrats beat the Republicans for the first time in many yearsâ€¦ Yes, the first time in nine years.
So was your absence any sort of statement that somehow the step being taken by the president wasn't significant enough for you to change your plans? No, there's no statement. Certainly, if this had been a major announcement of equal rights for our community, I would have let my teammates down and attended, but this was a small step in the right direction and not something that would have merited me letting my congressional colleagues down.
Do you plan to attend the DNC fund-raiser Thursday? Of course, I'm a Democrat and a proud Democrat. Our party's not perfect, but certainly I will help the Democrats however I can. I did an event for Democrats for education reform Monday, and if you figure our party has a ways to go on LGBT equality, we have even further to go on education reform where President Obama has been a great leader, but those are battles we fight every day.
What do you think of those who are boycotting the fund-raiser in order to express some real discontent with the Democratic Party for what many feel is lack of movement on LGBT issues? First of all, there's a huge difference between Democrats and the Republican Party on equality issues, even when something very noncontroversial like hate-crimes legislation came up to Congress, we only had a handful of Republicans who joined with an overwhelming majority of Democrats to pass that bill [in the House]. So there's a huge difference between the parties, and there's a huge difference with Obama as president with a number of these smaller announcements.
What a lot of the community is frustrated about -- and I share this frustration -- is the brief that defended [the Defense of Marriage Act]. President Obama ran on a platform of repealing DOMA in its entirety and certainly we can take him at his word on that. But filing a brief to defend it and using some of the citations that they did was rightfully offensive to our community and that's why many donors have chosen to withhold their donations until they feel more comfortable with the Democratic Party.
Do you take issue with that? No, I think that's up to each individual donor. Some donors might choose to support the party now, some might delay. I would certainly hope that before the next election we've demonstrated that we've moved substantially on the equality agenda. But if the Democrats fail to deliver on the equality agenda, then it's reasonable that gay and lesbian donors might choose to donate to activist groups rather than the party itself.
What about this idea from Bruce Bastian -- who obviously has a wealth of resources -- saying that he's not going to make blanket donations to the Democratic Party but instead will support individual candidates and politicians who are moving forward on LGBT issues? I think that's a good strategic way to give. I hope he'll donate money to my campaign.
Have you been pleased with what the administration has done so far and what leadership on the Hill has done so far on LGBT issues? No, and I don't think it's a matter of people's positions and where they stand, it's a matter of priorities. Clearly we have an economic crisis, two wars, and health care reform and energy reform, but I don't think that should stand in the way of making sure our community can achieve full equality.
Wednesday, Rep. Barney Frank will be holding a press conference about introducing a transgender-inclusive employment nondiscrimination bill. How much momentum does that bill have and where does it stand in terms of votes? It will certainly be one of our top priorities for our equality caucus here in Congress. As you know, many states already have nondiscrimination laws and we're hoping that we'll be able to build momentum for this bipartisan bill and pass it.
Do you have any idea about the vote count? I think we have an excellent chance of getting it through. It will be coming through my committee, the Education and Labor Committee -- we expect it will come out of that committee and hopefully have the support that it needs to pass. It should be a particularly easy vote for any member of Congress who comes from a state that already has protections.
Any idea on timing? Could it be passed before the end of this year? We hope to bring it to floor as soon as we can. Nondiscrimination in the workplace is just a basic American value and Americans certainly don't stand for discrimination based on race or gender, or sexual orientation or gender identity and I think this bill just reflects that broad American value. So I'm confident that we'll have enough votes to get it through [in the House].
In terms of DOMA, I know some of the leadership on the Hill was discussing a bill that would repeal section 3 of DOMA, which would allow the federal government to recognize gay marriages. What's on the horizon for DOMA repeal? I support a full repeal, but we'll certainly be wiling to negotiate any step in the right direction. As more states have same-sex marriage, it's become a more critical issue at the federal level as to how we treat those marriages. President Obama's recent announcement that they will count same-sex marriages for the purposes of the census was a small step in the right direction -- it means something in terms of data, it doesn't mean much to married couples. But I'm confident that if we keep chipping away at this, whether it's through the courts or legislatively, we can make sure that marriage is valid across all 50 states.
Do you anticipate any forthcoming DOMA repeal bill this year? Yes, I expect that there will be a bill this year. As I said, as more and more states allow same-sex marriage, it's becoming a critical issue for the federal government to act on.
What about "don't ask, don't tell" -- there's no Senate bill, there's no movement on the repeal bill that was dropped in the House earlier this year. What's the major holdup here? I'm very frustrated with "don't ask, don't tell." Congress will have a chance this week to end that policy as a part of the [Defense Department] reauthorization and I've offered a couple amendments on that topic. And yet the House Armed Services Committee hasn't held a markup on the current bill yet. Some of that is internal politics -- the lead sponsor of that bill, Ellen Tauscher, has been appointed to a White House post.
Again, there's an opportunity this week, and there will be another opportunity in a couple weeks with the Defense appropriations bill to simply remove funding for the discharge operation. The reauthorization bill sets up the rules and laws for the Department of Defense and the appropriations bill funds Defense. Both of them present opportunities to end "don't ask, don't tell." So there's ample opportunity and we just need a commitment from our leadership to get it done and it will get done.
On the bill this week, I've offered an amendment that would suspend investigations of "don't ask, don't tell."
Any traction on that? We had a letter go to President Obama -- and 77 members of Congress signed on -- that basically asked for something very similar to what my amendment proposes, which is a suspension of the investigations under "don't ask, don't tell." So it's not a full repeal, but it would give Congress some breathing room and give the Armed Services Committee some time to do this the right way.
[Update: In the Rules Committee, Representative Polis offered his amendment to suspend investigations and then withdrew it, as is common practice when an amendment does not have enough votes to pass a committee vote.]
Do you have anything to add before we end? Here in Congress I share the sentiment that many activists have that we're going too slow on these issues. But I think people also need to understand that Congress goes slow on a lot of issues. There's a lot of frustration from others in the progressive community. Immigration reform is an issue that I care deeply about -- there's an LGBT aspect to that, so that same-sex couples can get fair treatment under immigration law -- but immigration reform as a whole is a difficult issue; it's one that may or may not be put off yet again.
But we're hopeful that we will make progress on equality, it's just a question of how much and how fast. We're certainly moving in the right direction. The pressure from the community helps and we need to make sure that all members of Congress hear it. Gays and lesbians live across the country and it's critical that whether their representative is a Democrat or Republican that they hold their leaders accountable and demand that we move forward on an equality agenda.
Do you worry that if legislation like repeal of DADT or DOMA doesn't happen in the first two years that it might not get done at all as the White House looks ahead to trying to win reelection in 2012? I think this year is a great year to pass equality bills, and in terms of what the LGBT community should do to move us forward, I do think that we should acknowledge that there's a major difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. It's a very different Congress than it was when Republicans controlled it -- instead of talking about antigay amendments preventing gay marriage, we're talking about when and how we're going to repeal DOMA.
So the way our government is set up can make it difficult to get things done, but it's important that the LGBT community advocates on our issues. Everyone who cares about an equality agenda should reach out in a friendly way to their Congress members, ask them what they are doing, maybe share a personal story and what these laws mean for their lives and how critical it is that we act on these issues.