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Leading the

Leading the


In October, Aubrey Sarvis took the helm at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Will his Rolodex of political and business bigwigs be enough to overturn "don't ask, don't tell"?

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 [1964] 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 president's desk? 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.

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