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Howard Dean says
he's sorry

Howard Dean says
he's sorry

Dean_0

In an exclusive interview with The Advocate, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee says that his mistake on The 700 Club should not blind LGBT voters to his party's ongoing, hands-on work for equality. Does he support marriage equality himself? Sort of.

Howard Dean screwed up, and he's sorry. Appearing May 10 on the Christian Broadcasting Network talk show The 700 Club--antigay preacher Pat Robertson's home base--the chairman of the Democratic National Committee misstated his party's platform on marriage equality. "The Democratic Party platform from 2004 says that marriage is between a man and a woman," he said. In fact the platform calls for "full inclusion of gay and lesbian families" and says the definition of marriage should be left up to the states.

Speaking to The Advocate by telephone six days later, the former Vermont governor--who signed into law the nation's first marriage-like civil unions law covering same-sex couples--said simply, "I made a mistake, and it was a bad mistake." But having won unprecedented LGBT support in his home state and in his 2003 campaign for president, Dean added, "I would hope one misstatement is not going to destroy the relationship that I've had with the LGBT community over the past four or five years." [See the full interview below.]

But the 700 Club incident wasn't the first bad press the DNC got in the gay media in 2006. In February the Washington Blade reported that the party had, months earlier, abolished all constituent outreach desks--including the staff responsible for LGBT voters--replacing minority-specific outreach efforts with a new program called the American Majority Partnership. Democratic Party fund-raiser Jeff Soref resigned from the DNC in protest, telling the Blade gays were being "remarginalized" in the party.

That same month, a six-page Annual Report to the Grassroots issued by the DNC failed to include any mention of LGBT issues or voters. The party quickly issued a clarification underlining its support for LGBT equality and distancing itself from the apparently unofficial and incomplete "report." As if that wasn't enough, the DNC was back in the news in May, when Dean fired the party's gay outreach adviser, Donald Hitchcock, shortly after Hitchcock's partner, Paul Yandura, had sent out an e-mail critical of the party. Yandura's April 20 "open letter" accused the Democratic Party of refusing to battle antigay statewide initiatives, such as state constitutional amendments to outlaw marriage equality, and suggested LGBT people withhold donations from the party.

The DNC immediately hired Brian Bond to replace Hitchcock, and a spokeswoman said that Hitchcock's firing was "not retaliation."

A week later came Dean's gaff on The 700 Club.

At a time when your opponents have perfected the art of mobilizing their base to win close elections, what's the chairman of the DNC doing on The 700 Club? We're also trying to mobilize our base. We have people in all 50 states knocking on doors, and we're doing specific [organizing] with the LGBT community for the first time. We're paying for these organizers in every state--there's 200 of them around the country--and when we train them, among all the other things they have to [learn], specifically, is how to empower our friends and family in the LGBT community. We talk to them about how to talk about LGBT issues, with the straight community and with the LGBT community. We also have an arrangement with Stonewall Democrats--they were very active in our million-household canvass two weeks ago. We're really trying to integrate the LGBT community so they don't just talk to each other, they also speak to the straight community--because ultimately, I think, that's how we're going to start converting folks to understand that gay Americans are Americans first, who happen to be gay.

But while it's good to hear that the DNC is doing grass-roots organizing on gay issues that we haven't necessarily heard about, what we see on the news is you on The 700 Club. Gay voters supported your presidential campaign [in 2003 and early 2004] because they saw you as cutting through the bullshit and speaking your mind. Now you appear to be pandering to the antigay far right. Why should gay voters trust you with their issues when you're on The 700 Club? Well, to be honest with you, I was hurt a little bit by the reaction, because I certainly made a mistake in misstating the party's platform.

How did that happen?Because that was the position that the presidential candidate had in the last election--I just assumed that that was the party platform, and it wasn't. I just made a mistake, and it was a bad mistake, but if you look at what else I said on [the Christian Broadcasting Network]--and it's not the last time I'm going to go on CBN--I went on and I said gay people need to be included. We stand up for equal rights for every American and the belief that everybody deserves to live with dignity and respect. That wasn't sent around in all those e-mails, but that was part of the transcript too. Look, I don't defend the mistake I made--I made a mistake and I misstated the party's platform, but I also stood up for gay and lesbian Americans on that show. Look, with my history, there's no way I'm going to back away from the LGBT community.

But then why eliminate all discussion of gay issues and gay voters from the DNC's Grassroots Report, which came out earlier this year?To be honest with you, I don't know what the Grassroots Report is, I'm embarrassed to say. [DNC spokesman Damien LaVera explained after this interview that the so-called Grassroots Report was not an official DNC publication but a fund-raising e-mail on which Governor Dean had no input. The e-mail also failed to mention outreach to African-American voters, LaVera noted.]

When we all know that privately, many Democratic politicians support marriage equality, why can't the Democratic Party take a firm stand on equality?Well, I think we do take a firm stand on equality; there's no question about that.

But not for marriage equality.Well, the question is how we get to equality under the law for all Americans, and I think the Democratic Party has provided that [plan]. It's obviously a difficult debate, but there's no backing away from equal rights under the law for all Americans, including gay and lesbian Americans. The question is how do you get there, and I think that's what's still being debated.

Do you personally support marriage equality for same-sex couples?I've never answered that question. What I have said is that I support equal rights under the law for every single American.

That sounds like you want to say you're in favor of marriage equality without saying you're in favor of marriage equality.You know, I represent a party that has a very broad constituency. I think there are people who are committed to equal rights under the law but don't think you have to have [same-sex] marriage in order to do it, and there are people who think you have to have marriage. I'm not a candidate at this point; all I can do is say is that we're going to continue to work really hard for equal rights under the law, and we're going to continue to work really hard to kill nasty approaches and divisive approaches like the marriage amendment [which would write antigay marriage discrimination into the U.S. Constitution and has been scheduled for an early-June vote in the U.S. Senate by Majority Leader Bill Frist]. We do not support amendments to the United States Constitution that scapegoat communities.

Why do you think it makes news when someone like Sen. Russ Feingold comes out in favor of marriage equality? Why aren't more Democratic politicians who privately favor marriage equality putting that into their campaigns and platforms?Because I think it's extremely controversial, and we need to work through that controversy. There's a lot of education that has to be done, and that's why we decided to ask Stonewall [Democrats] to help us with the [50-state] canvass. It's why we got rid of the so-called gay desk and all the other desks, because we wanted to integrate folks into our approach to mainstream voters. We don't want to pigeonhole, for example, gay staff or black staff or Hispanic staff or anybody else anymore. We want to have an outreach [effort] that emphasizes the diversity of our party. My guess is, we have more LGBT staffers at the DNC now than we've ever had before. Those folks can do a lot more than just do LGBT outreach, but each time they represent themselves as openly gay or lesbian to an American who happens to be straight, that American finds a human being who's a competent, qualified person who happens to be gay, and that kicks the ball down the court in terms of equal rights under the law.

Coming out is always a political act, I agree. But it's a very private one. I think gay and lesbian voters are looking for the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates to take a firm public stand on issues of equality: on overturning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, on support for gay youth, on rights for gay parents, on scrapping abstinence programs in favor of real AIDS prevention education. Why can't Democratic candidates stand up and say very firmly that these things need to be addressed? I'm happy to do that. When I was running for president, I did that. Don't forget, I'm still on record as opposing [the federal] DOMA [signed by President Clinton] and thinking that "don't ask, don't tell" ought to be eliminated. I still publicly make fun of the Bush administration for kicking out Arab translators because they happened to be gay. I'm with you on all these issues. I think it's very important--I have to underline this--that the LGBT community and the Democratic Party not get divided over the one issue that we're still having a big conversation about, which is the conversation about marriage equality. Because all the other things, certainly, the chairman of the DNC is with you on. And many Democrats are with you on. Maybe not all; maybe not as many as we think should [be]. But I am with you on "don't ask, don't tell"; I am with you on adoption rights; I am with you on DOMA. I'm not perfect, but I think when you compare us to the other side, we're pretty close.

But without a unified party standing firmly for equality, how do you motivate gay and lesbian people on a national level to be as supportive of the Democratic Party as many of them were of your campaign? Where are the big gestures to make people excited and want to give money and support it and get out there and vote? I think one of the things that we have to do is be very clear when things like the Frist amendment come up. We have to be very clear about standing up and saying, "No, this is wrong and this is divisive." And I think that's how you do it--we have to be out there doing this grassroots, personal-recognition thing that I talked about before. We have to show that we're willing to stand with the LGBT community, and I think we have. I think my record shows [that]. I would hope one misstatement is not going to destroy the relationship that I've had with the LGBT community over the past four or five years.

No, I don't believe one misstatement will, but there have been a series of what are perceived as missteps, and I'm wondering what bigger gesture can be made to counter that series of unfortunate events. Yes, standing up against the Frist amendment is a good thing. Do you think the Democrats in the Senate have actually done that in a very public way? Have they gone on the Sunday talk shows to say, "This is a bad thing"? Well, in fairness, it's not up [for a vote] yet, and usually people don't crank that up. This week, it'll be immigration, and we'll get to [the Frist amendment] by June 5, and the talk shows will do that [the weekend before the vote]. And I'll certainly be up there saying it's a bad thing, and it didn't pass the last time, principally because a majority of Democrats stood up and said, "No, we're not going to do this."

Among the missteps I referred to, I have to ask you what happened with Donald Hitchcock. Obviously, there's the appearance that he was fired because of something that his partner, Paul Yandura, said. That's absolutely false. But I can also tell you that in fairness to Donald, I'm not going to discuss his personnel records in public. We're not going to do that. But there's no way that his termination was in any way related to Paul's views on anything.

Did you know Paul's views?I actually have not seen the e-mail [Paul had written]. I've never seen the e-mail, but I personally did not know about the e-mail until after Donald was asked to leave.

We have time for just a couple more questions. I have to ask: What happened with [Iraqi War vet] Paul Hackett [who says he was forced by top level Democrats to bow out of the primary for the U.S. Senate in Ohio]? Many gay voters in particular thought he was a terrific candidate and a fresh voice for the Democratic Party, and he was pro-equal marriage. Why was he not allowed to run in Ohio? I thought that was a mistake--I publicly said so. I think that folks in the party committees ought not to be heavy-handed about deciding who can and who can't run. I was one of the people who talked Paul Hackett into running for the Senate, and I disagreed publicly with those leaders who participated in getting him out.

So are we going to hear you really calling the Bush administration on everything at every turn for the next six months until the November election?I haven't stopped doing that. As I said, I made one mistake misstating the party platform, and I just hope that the LGBT community will remember all the good things that I've done. Look, I'm going to go on Christian [broadcasting] again, because we need to reach out to evangelicals and I don't think it was wrong to go on Christian broadcasting. Misstating the platform was wrong, but judge me by the next time I go on, by what I say to the Christian evangelical audience and see if it's not consistent with standing up for the rights of every single American and being proud to be supported by the LGBT community.

After time expired with Governor Dean, The Advocate had some follow-up questions for DNC spokesman LaVera:

The governor talked about grassroots organizing efforts on a state-by-state level. But he didn't specifically mention putting party resources into the effort to defeat antigay initiatives and constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall in many states. Is the DNC helping to organize to defeat these divisive and antigay ballot measures? The DNC and Governor Dean are currently engaged in work related to fighting the Republican effort to scapegoat the LGBT community through a Federal Marriage Amendment.

And statewide ballot initiatives?And statewide ballot initiatives.

So the Democratic Party is, in fact, prepared to work against antigay statewide ballot initiatives?We're already working to do that. Not that we're prepared to--we are, in fact, doing it.

Can you be more specific?A couple of things: At the national level, we are consulting with the key groups in the community and, in fact, just had a conference call today in which the Human Rights Campaign briefed our state party chairs on important polling information about the issue [of LGBT equality]. And at the state level, we are providing important resources through our partnership program by training all the organizers that we have hired in these states on how to reach out to and communicate with the LGBT community, and also on how the LGBT community is working with the straight community as part of our effort to make sure that we can fight ballot initiatives in the state and elect Democratic legislature in the states where a lot of these fights originate.

What I got from the governor is that not all Democratic candidates are on board for fighting for gay rights. How do you deal with that?Democrats generally are united around the notion that all Americans should be treated equally under the law. That's a common commitment among Democrats. And we're all committed to ending these Republican efforts to scapegoat LGBT families, and that is consistent across the board for Democrats. So we're all united around that, and that's why we're fighting these ballot initiatives in the states and why we're fighting the Federal Marriage Amendment as well.

But do you think Democratic candidates running for office in the states that are facing antigay ballot initiatives will be vocal about their opposition to these initiatives? Is that something that the DNC would like to see happen?I can't speak for those candidates--you'd have to talk to them. But we're providing the resources to the state parties so that they can help organize against state ballot initiatives, and we're also providing them the resources to take back the state legislature so these things don't make it to the ballot in the first place.

But there's no way of telling whether these state Democratic committees and specific state candidates are actually going to utilize this information and these resources.We encourage in all candidates in the states' parties to stand up for equal protection under the law for all Americans. There's hundreds of candidates--I can't speak for all of them.

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