Coverdell speaks to gay Republicans

Laura Brown, Southern Voice

December 9, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Just two weeks after GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush said he "probably would not" meet with Log Cabin Republicans, Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-GA) addressed the state chapter of the national group for gay party supporters.

Coverdell, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, serves as one of the national co-chairs of Bush's presidential campaign. Bush's refusal to meet with the gay Republicans was the most consistent concern when Coverdell spoke with the group Dec. 1.

The audience of about 40 turned the conversation away from Coverdell's general speech on the 106th Congress and to the Bush campaign, once the question-and-answer session began.

As a gay man, "why should I lend my vote to someone who feels my presence in the party is divisive?" the first questioner asked.

In a Nov. 21 interview on the NBC News program "Meet the Press," Bush said he would "probably not" meet with the gay Republican group because "it creates a huge political scene."

"I am someone who is a uniter, not a divider. I don't believe in group thought, pitting one group of people against another. And all that does is create kind of a huge political, you know, nightmare for people," Bush said.

Coverdell told Log Cabin that he had not talked with Bush about the issue of meeting with the group, and "it is better to let the campaign develop its comments."

"I would let things air themselves," Coverdell said. "I know on several issues, we would read something and then we would be in touch with the campaign, and it would sort itself out... My advice is to watch and listen."

Log Cabin member Mark Mead stressed that since all Log Cabin members were Republicans, other differences should not matter. He asked Coverdell to do Log Cabin a "favor": "Tell Gov. Bush we need to meet with him. ...Represent this constituency when you have his very important ear."

"I'll take that in good faith," Coverdell replied, "and I'll let you all interpret that without making any formal statement on it."

In response to another question, Coverdell denied rumors that he and other Bush supporters were participating in a "whisper campaign" questioning the "temper" of John McCain, the Arizona senator currently trailing Bush in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, met with Log Cabin members earlier this month. Copies of a conservative newspaper's article about the meeting were anonymously mailed to McCain supporters in South Carolina along with a slip of paper with the typed word "hmmm..."

Coverdell told Log Cabin the rumors don't even make sense. "It would be a little hard to run a whisper campaign about a subject that's been on the front page of every newspaper," he said.

Coverdell said he was "certain" none of the senators named in newspaper articles about the alleged campaign were involved, and he described the charges as "utter poppycock."

Michael Brown, presiding over his last meeting as president of the Georgia Log Cabin club, said he was "completely satisfied" with Coverdell's responses to the questions. Brian Ballard was elected Log Cabin's new president after Coverdell's speech.

"I thought Sen. Coverdell's responses were awfully forthcoming, although the very questions put him in an awkward position," said Brown, who also serves on the Bush campaign's Georgia finance committee. "He couldn't state for the record anything that would put him at odds with [Bush or the campaign], because that literally would have made national news."

Nevertheless, "in my interpretation, [Coverdell] very clearly indicated without putting it in so many words that the favor and our message had both been heard, and the favor would be granted," Brown said.

Brown said he and Coverdell also discussed Bush's refusal to meet with Log Cabin after the meeting. "I believe he will take our message to Gov. Bush, that he ought to meet with us because it is the right thing to do and it is the correct thing to do politically," Brown said. "I believe [Bush] recognizes he made a mistake, ...and he'll meet with us when the political climate is such that he can."

Coverdell never said the words "gay" or "lesbian" during his remarks, and the questions about Bush were the only time he addressed issues of specific concern to gay men and lesbians.

Still, Brown said he was happy with the event because Coverdell "talked about the day-to-day issues we care about, which were really the issues we invited him to talk about before Gov. Bush made his mistake."

Still no support for hate crimes, ENDA

In a brief interview with Southern Voice as he was leaving the Log Cabin meeting, Coverdell said he was willing to meet with the group because he believes in "the listening concept."

The senator said his willingness to talk with gay men and lesbians about issues of concern is "nothing new," noting he had met in the past with other gay constituents and representatives of gay groups.

Still, Coverdell has been unwilling in the past to support key gay rights measures, including the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

HCPA would add sexual orientation, gender and disability to existing hate crimes laws and expand federal jurisdiction to prosecute hate crimes, while ENDA would outlaw job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Asked about his position on the hate crimes bill, Coverdell stressed that he hadn't signed on as a co-sponsor, but he was "willing to listen" to arguments favoring the measure.

"I typically have been on the other side of legislation that sets categories," he said, citing his opposition to ENDA. "But I have said on any and all issues-which is the best I can do and I would do it for any group-that I hope people feel like they can come and make their case and let us hear them out."

With the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, "it's like everything else," Coverdell said. "The unintended consequences have to be considered, too can you ever prove it? It would make things more complicated."

Coverdell contrasted his more open position on the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to his decision not to support ENDA, which he voted against the one time the legislation reached a floor vote in the Senate. "I am willing to hear anyone out, but on ENDA that decision has been cast at least two or three times," he said.

Coverdell said he opposes ENDA because "it is litigious and again it is categorization of a separate set of rights.

"I just don't agree with that," he said.

Coverdell declined to say whether he supports existing federal laws that already ban job discrimination on the basis of other categories, including race, gender, religion and national origin.

"That's cracker barrel stuff," he said. "I don't know that I have reviewed that sufficiently to answer."

The Georgia Log Cabin chapter endorsed Coverdell when he ran for re-election in 1998. Brown said Coverdell's refusal to sign on to the hate crimes bill was not an issue in the endorsement, because the Georgia group has not taken an official position on the legislation since some members oppose it.

Brown said the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans and the national group have taken official positions supporting ENDA, "but we are Republicans, and the whole reason Log Cabin clubs exist is we will agree on the 80 to 90 percent of issues we have in common, and with the other 10 to 20 percent where we disagree with members of our own party, we will work to educate and change the minds of candidates and elected officials."