Gay Republicans Want Bush to Take Stand on Their Issues
Mixed signals: Many say he's personally tolerant but doesn't wish to offend social conservatives.
(Austin, Texas) – Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush has vowed to bring minority groups into the GOP fold. But members of one minority group – gays and lesbians – still aren't sure whether Bush's pledge includes them.
During a recent debate, Bush said he would appoint people based on their qualifications, not their sexual orientation. But he has refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group. Gay rights advocates hold positions in the Bush campaign. But the governor promised a group of Christian conservatives that as president he wouldn't appoint people who espouse a homosexual lifestyle.
Bush's mixed signals reflect the complexities of cultivating a relationship with the gay community. If he embraces it, Bush could lose Christian conservative votes in the GOP primaries or in the general election against a socially conservative third-party candidate such as Pat Buchanan. But exit polls suggest that gay voters make up about 5 percent of the electorate – about the same as Latinos – and they are concentrated in high electoral-vote states such as California, New York, Illinois and Florida. Conceding so many votes to the Democrats could be politically perilous.
"There are lots of gay people who by tradition and heritage would be much more at home in the Republican Party were it not for things like George Bush being embarrassed to be seen with homosexuals," said Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York City who studies gay rights issues.
As the country becomes increasingly tolerant of homosexuality, Bush's lukewarm attitude may alienate heterosexual voters as well, Sherrill said.
"This strikes me as a classic example of what happens when a candidate adopts a strategy that's designed to win the nomination, even at the cost of losing the election," he said.
In contrast, Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley haven't been bashful about courting the gay vote, which could be especially critical in their fight for the Democratic nomination. People who identify themselves as gay make up between 8 percent and 9 percent of the Democratic electorate nationwide, and slightly more in the crucial primary states of New York and California.
In a recent debate, both Democrats argued that the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military isn't working and that gays should be allowed to serve openly. Gore and Bradley are aware of polls that show 70 percent of Americans support that view. Furthermore, in the wake of several high-profile murders of gays, voters are increasingly sensitive to the dangers of discrimination. Even the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Virginia preacher who founded the Moral Majority, has called for an end to anti-gay rhetoric.
During a recent GOP debate, several Republican candidates said gays should be banned from the military and characterized them as immoral. But Bush and his closest rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, declined to criticize homosexuality and said they support the current policy.
Unlike Bush, however, McCain met with the Log Cabin Republicans. Asked during a television interview to explain his refusal to meet with the group, Bush said he didn't believe in "group thought" or "pitting one group of people against another." Many were puzzled by that explanation, given that Bush frequently meets with other political and interest groups.
Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush refused to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans because they politicize gay issues.
"He does not believe in politicizing the issue, and this is a group that wants to politicize it," McClellan said. He added that Bush didn't see the point of meeting with the group because he disagrees with its positions.
Nor would the Bush campaign say whether the governor agrees with the Texas GOP's platform position on gays and lesbians, which is that "homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God." Instead, campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Bush believes "it's not his place to judge other people."
Bush's Texas legislative record also is open to interpretation. Rep. Glen Maxey, the only openly gay member of the Texas Legislature, describes Bush as "pretty benign" because whatever his policy positions, he hasn't resorted to anti-gay rhetoric.
"He's not a Jesse Helms," Maxey, a Democrat from Austin, said in a reference to the conservative North Carolina U.S. senator. "But at a time when there's a tremendous rise in hate crimes, and discrimination in the workplace still abounds, the fact that a leader would not see gay and lesbian issues as important or take a position one way or the other is troubling to me."
Like presidential candidates from both parties, Bush opposes same-sex marriages. The Democrats want to guarantee legal and financial benefits to gay and lesbian partnerships, but they maintain that marriage is a religious and cultural institution reserved for a man and a woman.
"Bush has had a fair record, and many gays believe he's been a good governor. But he does need to move more on some gay political issues," said Steve Labinski, who heads the Texas branch of the Log Cabin Republicans.
Maxey suspects that some of Bush's positions are the result of political considerations rather than his personal views. Members of the Madison Project, a conservative political action committee, came away from a September meeting with Bush with a different impression than Maxey.
Michael Farris, the chairman of the group, said he asked Bush about his comment that he wouldn't fire an aide he discovered to be gay. Farris was reassured by Bush's response.
"He said I'm not going to appoint people who are open advocates of the homosexual lifestyle because their policies aren't likely to be my policies on issues," Farris said.