U.S. Army veteran
Aubrey Sarvis has won his share of skirmishes in
Washington. As chief counsel for the Senate Commerce
Committee, he helped push through historic airline
deregulation; as Verizon's top lobbyist, he
fought for the landmark overhaul of U.S. telecommunications
law. But as the new executive director of
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the 63-year-old
South Carolinian could be in for his biggest battle yet.
Do you have what it takes to repeal "don't
ask, don't tell"?
The challenge is not unlike my previous experiences. On
the Hill it was about moving legislation and
persuading the president to sign it. It was the same
in the private sector -- bringing before the Congress the
business and practical realities of particular legislation.
Here, we're faced with bringing before the
Congress the practical realities of a really bad law.
What is your game plan for getting lawmakers' attention?
Do you expect that the issue will progress differently
with a Democratic-led Congress? We have to go before
the House and Senate Armed Services committees and
make our case. It's one vote at a time. It's
sitting down face-to-face and telling our story and making
the case that it was a mistake in 1993 when Congress
passed this law.
What is priority number 1 as you embark on this challenge?
Creating a national political campaign. This is a new
commitment from the board, and it and the staff are
committed to raising the resources to mount this.
It'll look like a traditional national presidential
campaign: We'll go to targeted congressional
districts; we'll focus on targeted states. The
organization has already been doing that, but we have to do
a hell of a lot more.
What else will you do?
We have to convince our supporters and friends of a new
sense of urgency, to renew their investment with us.
We already know our [$2.8 million] budget has to be
doubled within the next 18 months. A national campaign
costs money. We also have to look at a broader coalition.
This fight has to look like those that led to the
 civil rights legislation. What we're
asking Congress to do is to give us a civil rights
bill. This issue is not just a gay issue. It is job
discrimination, and it should be important to all Americans.
There hasn't been a congressional hearing on
"don't ask, don't tell"
since 1993, but currently there's legislation to
repeal it in the House and, soon, in the Senate.
Isn't it time for a public vetting of the issue?
We're talking to some of our champions on the
Hill about when to do that and what the focus should
be. Is it desirable to have a hearing this year?
Should we wait until the second session? If you're
serious about the legislative process, eventually you
have to have hearings. And there will be -- but I
can't give you an exact date.
Has SLDN begun reaching out to the presidential candidates?
I expect to speak to most of the Democratic candidates,
and I hope I'll have an opportunity to see some
Republicans as well. Do I think this is going to be a
big issue in the 2008 presidential campaign? No. But
this is about education. Every candidate -- Republican or
Democrat -- needs to be educated more on the issue.
What's a reasonable time line for getting a bill
through both chambers of Congress and to the
I would like to think it could happen in the next 18
months, but I believe that's highly unlikely.
What we're about for the rest of this year, all
of 2008, and into 2009 is educating folks, making our case,
and building the record we can in the House and
Senate. And when the new president comes in, whoever
he or she may be, they will see the seriousness of our
desire and the record of our work.
When were your hackles first raised about
"don't ask, don't tell"?
To be honest, I had lost sight of this issue. I was also
among those in 1993 who were a bit naive. I thought
maybe this really was an intelligent compromise --
that maybe we wouldn't have the kind of
intrusive looking and seeking. But the record has proven
otherwise. But I'm not new to this issue. When
I was in the military, men and women were being
discharged because they were gay. The only thing
that's different today is that the military is
not as aggressive about it. But under current law
someone can still out you.