'We have the access, the influence, and the clout'
Log Cabin Republicans' Washington Weekend draws Rep. Tom Coburn, other major players
"I don't have to agree with you on every issue for us to work together," said U.S. Representative Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) to a group of Gay Republicans last week.
That, essentially, was the message at the fifth annual Log Cabin Republican Washington Weekend.
"The common theme," said Kevin Ivers, communications director for the Log Cabin Republicans, "was finding common ground and reconciliation."
U.S. Rep. Steve Kuykendall (R-Calif.) also spoke of the need to maintain communication despite differences.
"I'm probably not 100 percent [in agreement with the] votes you'd like to have on your issues, but I'll be a thoughtful vote," Kuykendall said. "I'll be happy to listen and think about what you've got on your minds."
Forty-two Log Cabin board members and major donors crowded into a room in the U.S. Capitol on April 29 to hear Coburn, Kuykendall, and nine other Republican members of Congress speak about their relationship with Log Cabin and the status of Gay and AIDS issues in the legislature. Other speakers included Reps. Mary Bono of California, Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania, and Connie Morella of Maryland, among others. Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont spoke to the group at a luncheon the next day.
Many of the major donors had come to previous Washington Weekends, but some said this year marked a turning point for the organization.
Perhaps most significant was the presence of Coburn – founder of the Congressional Family Caucus and a Southern Baptist deacon – at Log Cabin's "GOP Congressional Briefing" on April 29. Coburn has consistently voted in favor of anti-Gay legislation, often taking a position opposite that of Log Cabin. For instance, he voted in favor of the Hefley amendment, which would have gutted President Clinton's executive order banning sexual orientation discrimination in the federal workplace. In a letter to House Republicans, Rich Tafel, Log Cabin's executive director, called the Hefley amendment "morally wrong and politically dangerous."
While it is clear that Coburn and Log Cabin do not always see eye-to-eye, they have worked together to increase funding of the AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
"Coburn epitomized the fact that we can work together on issues on which we agree," said James Driscoll, AIDS policy advisor for Log Cabin.
Tafel was enthusiastic about Coburn's appearance.
"This is a huge deal that he's coming today," Tafel told members. "I think it's a sign of maturity for this organization, a sign of maturity for him to come speak to us."
But in introductory statements before the speakers arrived, Tafel warned members that: "We don't want to put people on the spot … I hope you'll treat him [Coburn] with respect and understanding."
Coburn's speech focused on AIDS issues, where he and Log Cabin have the most agreement. Coburn spoke of the need for AIDS organizations and conservative groups to overcome their mutual fear of each other.
"We cannot allow people's prejudices, or the feelings of being persecuted because of people's prejudices, to stop us from doing the right thing on the disease," he said.
Coburn drew applause when he reiterated his call for an audit of AIDS organizations receiving funds from the Ryan White Act. He noted that he has been assailed as anti-Gay because of his questioning of the financial policies of AIDS organizations.
Specifying the remarks of Daniel Zingale, the executive director of AIDS Action, a national lobbying group for AIDS issues, Coburn said, "When we asked for this audit, it was like – 'I didn't like people that were Gay, and that's why I was asking for the audit.' That doesn't have anything to do with it."
(Zingale denied criticizing Coburn's stand on Gay civil rights. "Any differences I have with Coburn on his record on Gay equal rights," he said, "are not central to the question of the audit. I did question the motives of members [calling for the audit] whose voting record is only seven percent, which is Dr. Coburn's record from AIDS Action." Zingale noted that ADAP funding is among the seven percent of issues in which AIDS Action agrees with Coburn. AIDS Action disagrees with the representative's position on such issues as needle exchange programs and funding levels for the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS program.)
The major donors at the weekend gathering, who had donated at least $2,400 per year to Log Cabin, met with their local representatives in the House and Senate to discuss issues of concern to the group and to offer their help as resources on AIDS and Gay issues. Those who had been at previous Washington Weekends said that their reception from Republican legislators was much warmer than it had been in the past.
"I see a better reception [this year]," said Log Cabin's AIDS policy advisor Driscoll.
Bruce Albert, a major donor from Long Beach, California, agreed with that assessment. "They're getting used to us," he said.
Among the positive results of the weekend, said Log Cabin communications director Ivers, was a pledge from Coburn to speak with members of Congress who have declined to meet with Log Cabin. Rep. Tom Campbell of California said that he would help set up a meeting between Log Cabin and presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole. And for the first time, Log Cabin members met with the staff of James Sensenbrenner of California, said Ivers.
"After six years, we really have arrived," said Ivers. "We have the access, the influence, and the clout."
There were more Republicans who wanted to speak at the Log Cabin briefing this year than the group could accommodate, Ivers said, a situation that had never occurred before. Twenty-three U.S. Representatives expressed interest in the meeting, Ivers said, but due to time constraints, the group could schedule only the first 11. Some of those turned away had spoken at previous Washington Weekends, said Ivers, including U.S. Reps. Rick Lazio of New York, and Nancy Johnson and Chris Shays of Connecticut.
Tafel attributed the warmer atmosphere to the work that Log Cabin has done over the last several years in working with the party.
"We've been here and we're known," he said.
Another important factor, Tafel said, is the influence of the 1998 elections.
"In '98, the party had a near-death experience," he said. "Now they're all looking to work together."
Also notable was the lack of reaction from anti-Gay groups to the presence of Coburn at a Gay organization's gathering.
"It took courage for [Coburn] just to show up," said Albert, noting that the religious right "has blasted" some Republicans for talking with Log Cabin.
Recently, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, was criticized by the right-wing Family Research Council for meeting with the Northern Virginia chapter of Log Cabin. The FRC accused Davis of "lending legitimacy to radical homosexual groups" and urged its members to express their disappointment.
So far, no right-wing organization has mentioned the presence of Coburn or any other Republican at the Log Cabin events, though Ivers said that the appearance had not yet been widely publicized.
Log Cabin's primary goal is quelling anti-Gay bias within the Republican party, but equally important, said members, is ending anti-Republican attitudes within the larger Gay community.
"The anti-Republican bias is so hateful," said Stephen White, from California. "[My partner] has been called a Nazi just for saying that he's a Republican. If we're ever going to see any of our legislation pass, it's going to take members of both parties."
As part of that goal, the weekend featured a debate between Tafel and a Lesbian activist more associated with the Gay community's left-leaning members, Urvashi Vaid, the director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute in New York. Entitled "Left vs. Right: What is the Gay Agenda?" the event was moderated by Bill Press, of CNN's Crossfire, in a room in the Russell Senate Office Building on the afternoon of April 30. The staff of openly Gay U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) had arranged rooms for the weekend events.
While Vaid and Tafel had clear disagreements on economic policies, the debate was notable for the number of times the two agreed with each other. Many observers joked that the event was less a debate than a lovefest.
"It kept coming back to common ground," Ivers said of the debate. "It shows that the Gay movement is not as polarized as it used to be."
"I was surprised," said Patrick Ball, a Log Cabin member from Texas. "I expected more debate … but they stuck pretty much to Gay issues."
"Our goals on Gay issues," Vaid said, "are in sync more often than not."