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The Running

The Running


When Barack Obama tapped Delaware senator Joseph Biden to be his vice president, he made a good move for gay rights.

As one of the most anticipated announcements in recent political history dragged into late August, there was no shortage of debate over whom Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama should choose as his running mate. Among the top contenders was Virginia governor Tim Kaine, who's shown a tepid approach to gay rights, and Evan Bayh, an Indiana senator with stronger equality credentials but a reputation for blandness. (New York senator Hillary Clinton was a serious long shot, though a choice that former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani subsequently deemed a "no-brainer.")

When Obama finally did reveal his vice president -- via text message at 3 a.m. on August 23 -- it wasn't hard to see that Delaware senator Joseph Biden Jr. was the better pick in terms of gay rights than either Kaine or Bayh. While he may not be a trailblazer, Biden has a solid record on gay issues, which is augmented by his considerable experience, outspokenness, and reputation.

Since first being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 (at age 29), Biden has demonstrated a consistent commitment to equality in general, which he often expressed through influential positions as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He opposed the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991, authored the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, and recently helped broker passage of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which includes a provision to repeal the travel and immigration ban on HIV-positive people.

Gay leaders from his home state hail Biden. "He's extremely well-respected," says Emily Falcon, a Democrat who became the first openly gay delegate from Delaware elected to a national political convention in 2004. "We feel lucky to have such a nationally known figure and a Delaware icon representing our issues so well and so thoughtfully in Washington, D.C."

"I know that Joe is very fair," adds Bob Martz, president of the Delaware Liberty Fund, a nonpartisan political action committee focused on LGBT issues. "I feel comfortable that if he were asked, he would support many of our issues."

And there are statistics to back up the praise, specifically Biden's 84% average on nine congressional scorecards issued by the Human Rights Campaign since 1989. In addition, Biden was cosponsor of the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2007, and he supports transgender inclusion in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In 2006 he opposed the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, calling it nothing more than a political distraction. "Because we don't want to make any hard decisions," he said on NBC's Meet the Press at the time, "let's go talk about gay marriage. I think it's ridiculous."

Biden did, however, vote for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996; he says he supports federally recognized civil unions that grant same-sex couples the same legal rights as marriage. Nevertheless, when Fox News asked him in 2003 whether he believed gay marriage was inevitable, the senator replied, "I think it probably is."

With his mix of gravitas and garrulousness, Biden appears adequately armed to lead a repeal of the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay service members. He opposed the policy's codification in 1993, when it was championed by then-senator Sam Nunn. Biden continued to voice his dislike of the policy during a presidential debate in New Hampshire in June 2007. "Let me tell you something," he said. "Nobody asked anybody else whether they're gay in those foxholes, number one."

Immediately following the debate, the then-presidential candidate told The Advocate that if he were elected, he would simply end the antigay military policy. "I would issue an executive order saying there will be no discrimination whatsoever in the military and everybody will be held to the uniform military code -- so that if two gay people engage in illicit activity on the base, they're gone. Just like if two married people engage on the base, they're gone."

While his enthusiasm may be appreciated, "don't ask, don't tell" is a law enacted by congressional vote and presidential signature, so its repeal would likely not be possible by executive order, says Nathaniel Frank, senior fellow at the Palm Center, a research organization at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Instead, it would begin in Congress, where Biden, currently the sixth longest-serving senator, has already proven his mettle.

"Senator Biden has a long history of being a reliable expert on both foreign affairs and the armed services, which go hand in hand in the Congress," says Steve Ralls, former communications director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and a leading authority on the military ban. "Throughout his tenure, he has developed important relationships and has garnered the respect of many key people who would be important influencers in the campaign to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell.' "

In a campaign season marked by promises of renewed hope and trust, Barack Obama may have delivered with Joe Biden.

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