Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Dean courts fundies, infuriates gays


Howard Dean, now DNC chair, was all smiles during an appearance at San Francisco's LGBT Community Center a few years ago when he was exploring a presidential bid. Last week he misstated the party's platform on same-sex marriage. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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With the Senate expected to vote on the federal marriage amendment in three weeks, supporters and opponents of marriage equality have been turning up the volume. Last week, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean also spoke out, and infuriated gays in the process.

Dean appeared on The 700 Club – Pat Robertson's television show – Wednesday, May 10, in an effort to court Christian evangelicals who constitute the political base of the Republican Party. While on the show, Dean claimed that the Democratic Party platform said "marriage is between a man and a woman."

But that is not in fact what the platform says. Rather, it states, "We support full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of our nation and seek equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections for these families." The platform, which was adopted at the 2004 convention in Boston, also supports the tradition of states defining their own marriage laws and opposes amending the U.S. Constitution to change that.

The latest misstep by Dean, coming on the heels of his decision to fire gay party outreach worker Donald Hitchcock earlier this month, has triggered a wave of angry statements from the LGBT community, many of whom saw Dean's comments as a cynical political ploy. The incident served to ratchet up the growing discontent with Dean and the party within the community.

Dean also said during his television appearance, "Everybody deserves to live with dignity and respect and equal rights under the law are important. I'm not saying we'll agree with everything between the more conservative evangelicals and Democrats but I think there's more common ground and we're willing to work with the evangelical community."

Dean, the former Vermont governor, signed the country's first civil union bill into law several years ago, after that state's high court found state law discriminated against same-sex couples. The court ordered the state to correct the problem either by allowing same-sex marriage or creating a parallel domestic partnership status. The Vermont legislature passed a law creating civil unions, which Dean signed.

"Is this a bald-faced lie to pander to the religious right? I'd like to give Dean the benefit of the doubt, but some Democratic insiders who have corrected Dean on this very point in the past say yes," wrote David Mariner on the blog Mariner was active in Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, which spawned the blog.

Dean's misstatement on marriage prompted the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to issue a blistering statement.

"Governor Dean's record on LGBT issues since becoming DNC chair has been sorely and sadly lacking. The Democratic Party chair should stand by and fight for the party's own platform and values," said Matt Foreman, NGLTF executive director.

Putting its money where its mouth is, Foreman returned a recent $5,000 contribution the task force received from the DNC.

"Governor Dean's comments weren't a mere slip of the tongue but a glaring reminder of the governor's lack of leadership on this issue," stated Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese in an unusually tart comment for that organization.

"As we face a Senate vote in June that threatens to put discrimination in our Constitution, Governor Dean should not only have known better but he should have used the opportunity to speak out about the lack of values involved in the current constitutional debate," Solmonese added.

In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter last Thursday, right after the story broke, Solmonese, who was in San Francisco, said he hadn't talked to Dean yet.

"People need to remember that there are certain Democrats who are leading the charge on a number of issues that are important to our community. There are individual Democrats all around the country working on behalf of us," he added.

Dean issued a clarifying statement the following day. "I misstated the Democratic Party's platform, which does not say that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman, but says the party is committed to full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of our nation and leaves the issue to the states to decide ... our party continues to oppose constitutional amendments that seek to short circuit the debate on how to achieve equality for all Americans."

Hitchcock, reached Monday, declined to comment on the incident. His partner, Paul Yandura, who wrote an open letter critical of Dean that led to Hitchcock's dismissal from the DNC, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Local reaction

Locally, Democratic political leaders expressed frustration and disappointment with Dean.

"I think he's proven to be a great disappointment to many and I think the Democratic Party would benefit from leadership that eagerly embraces inclusion and equality," Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) told the B.A.R.

Leno said the controversies that have marked Dean's tenure as head of the party are nothing new. "I remember reading in the paper the day after Dean became chair that he said the Democrats don't support gay marriage."

Scott Wiener, a member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and co-chair of the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, said Dean's comments about the party platform and marriage "were very disappointing."

"While it is understandable that Chairman Dean wants to reach out to all sorts of different people to build the party's electoral base, we must never forget that central to the Democratic Party is a belief in equality and fairness," Wiener said. "The chairman of the Democratic Party should not be writing discrimination into the party platform."

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House minority leader, had no comment on the incident, said her district aide Dan Bernal.

Leslie Katz, chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said Tuesday, May 16 that he wasn't surprised because marriage equality is still a hot-button topic, especially outside California.

"I confess I haven't been watching The 700 Club much lately," Newsom joked. "But seriously, has anyone ever read our party's platform? The only people who read it are opposition research folks to use it against us.

"But I suggest look how far we've come on this issue. In the gubernatorial race both Democratic candidates support same-sex marriage," Newsom said.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano, who said he generally supports Dean, said, "He really has to get his facts 'straight.'"

Political pros

Chicago political consultant and fundraiser Michael Bauer said he is "willing to take Dean at face value that he misspoke. I don't think that Howard Dean is the enemy. He has problems with same-sex marriage that we need to keep working on. But he is a strong advocate for gay and lesbian equality – the level of recognition we can argue over."

"Governor Dean needs to understand the perspective that the [LGBT community] views this from," Bauer said. "That includes John Kerry's opposition to gay marriage in Massachusetts and his support of a constitutional amendment to ban it in Missouri during the 2004 presidential campaign, as well as attempts to pin Kerry's loss on gays and marriage. Dean's elimination of the LGBT outreach staff at the DNC also ruffled feathers."

Bauer is calling for an ongoing dialogue within the party to lower the rhetoric and discuss the substance of the issues. "We need to keep working on convincing members of the Democratic caucus that not only should they be opposed to the federal marriage amendment, but understand why marriage equality is a fundamental right for us," he said.

Ken Sherrill, a Democratic activist and professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City, is not so generous toward Dean. "It can't be incompetence; if his memory is that bad, who would trust him to remember what he learned in medical school," he said, referring to Dean being a medical doctor. Sherrill called it "A calculated attempt by Dean to rewrite history for the purpose of neutralizing voters."

Many of the Christian evangelical viewers of The 700 Club , who voted overwhelmingly for President Bush, are growing disenchanted with the president and the Republican Party over a range of issues. Reducing their perception of Democrats as a threat might at least decrease their participation in the next election, to the Democrats' benefit, observers said.

Sherrill believes that Dean and the Democrats are "trying to get rid of a distraction [gay marriage and gays in general] to focus on the core issues that they think they can win on in the election."

The first question is whether Dean is seen as credible to those viewers. "But given some of the things that Pat Robertson has said, some of these people are awfully gullible," Sherrill added.

Sherrill predicted that Karl Rove, the president's political strategist, would run commercials of Dean's 700 Club appearance juxtaposed against his appearance at LGBT events and raise the charge of flip-flopping. "That undermines the party's credibility and reinforces the view that these people will say anything to get elected."

He noted that people often vote for candidates with which they disagree on some issues because of the personal character. The charge of flip-flopping was what in large part cost Kerry the election. "To reinforce the attitude that cost the Democrats the presidency in 2004 is one of the dumbest things imaginable," Sherrill said of Dean's comments. "It invites the message that the Democrats don't have the courage of their convictions. When the nation is at war, the voters don't want cowards in charge."

Cynthia Laird and Matthew S. Bajko contributed to this article.

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