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Few hushed moments marked the visit of Harold E. Ford, Jr. to a divided gay political audience in Manhattan on Wednesday evening. One such instance came toward the end of his half-hour presentation, when the potential U.S. senate candidate from New York was asked what he thought of Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that decriminalized sodomy.
"Tell me what that decision is, sir, I'm sorry," said the former Tennessee congressman and University of Michigan Law School graduate. "I just don't know the decision."
Attendees gasped in unison at his unfamiliarity, whereas at most other times, interruptions and crowd infighting greeted his first appearance before the local Stonewall Democrats chapter, an influential political club. Ford's attempt to press the reset button with 200 members of New York's gay community ended, literally, with a piercing pop from a confetti cannon fired by activists into the room at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center in the West Village.
Prior to the blowout, Ford, who is considering a challenge to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary, fielded multiple questions about his mixed record on gay rights, especially his two votes in 2004 and 2006 for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have enshrined a gay marriage ban in the U.S. Constitution. He also was grilled about his recent conversion to support marriage equality, which he announced last month after expressing interest in the senate seat.
Ford, who said he officially made New York home last year, directly addressed the concerns about his 10-year record as a Tennessee congressman in his seven-minute introductory speech.
"While serving in Congress, my record on a variety of issues, social issues, in a lot of ways reflected what I knew then, people I represented in the state in which I was from, and frankly the influences that those around me, particularly my constituents, had on me," he said.
"I'm not ashamed to say that throughout my time in Congress, there were issues that I evolved on, I matured on," said Ford. "I listened to information on each side, sometimes changed my mind about issues."
At times, Ford seemed to be testing a talking point: marriage equality support means a lot coming from someone who once opposed it.
"I would hope that you would at least accept the fact that the reason the numbers and support for marriage equality continues to go up is because people like me change our minds," he said.
During the question and answer session, members of gay activist network
called The Power pressed Ford on his two votes for the discriminatory
marriage amendment, in particular, the accusations from two gay
activists in Memphis that his office promised them he would oppose the
amendment in 2004.
"I never promised anyone I would vote against that amendment," said Ford. "I voted twice in favor of it and I was wrong. I now recognize the wrongness of my ways."
Asked whether he was calling the Tennessee and New York activists liars, Ford replied, "You're misinformed, is what I'm calling you."
Tense exchanges like these provoked protesters' shouts of "No more lies!" followed by screams of "Let him talk!" from attendees who wanted to hear his pitch.
Lt. Dan Choi of the New York Army National Guard asked Ford why he wanted to run for senate at the expense of the gay community's "fierce advocate," Sen. Gillibrand.
"If you do consider running against Sen. Gillibrand, do you realize that you would be punishing our only advocate in the senate that would actually put the money where her mouth is?" asked Choi.
Ford, who confirmed that he supports "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, took the opportunity to suggest that his evolution is similar to the senator's.
"Prior to Sen. Gillibrand making her way to the senate, she was not in favor of marriage equality, she was not in favor of some of the issues, the other issues that you espouse, 'don't ask, don't tell,' at least to my knowledge," he said. "The only request I would have of you, sir, is that you give me the same opportunity to be a champion on your behalf that you gave her in light of the record that she brought to the United States senate."
Cathy Marino Thomas, executive director of Marriage Equality New York, asked Ford what tangible action he would undertake to support his words.
"Would you publicly support marriage equality on a national level?"
"Yes," said Ford.
Soon after, the room erupted again into shouting between protesters and Stonewall members who wanted to hear Ford talk. He could not deliver closing remarks on top of the noise, leaving the confetti-filled firecracker to punctuate his performance.
Not everyone was pleased.
"I'm really disgusted," said John Moran, a Stonewall member from Queens. "I could see if this was an arch hater of the lesbian and gay community, but he didn't deserve that on his first visit."
Asked to rate his interest in Ford, Moran replied, "Just curious."