by Chris Crain
SGN Contributing Writer
Run, Barack, run. That's the refrain echoing in some Democratic circle after first-term Illinois Sen. Barack Obama announced on "Meet the Press" this week that he is considering a run for the White House in 2008.
A party superstar ever since his energetic keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the mere possibility of Obama's entry scrambles what is already the most wide open presidential race in both parties in decades. His inclusive "One America" speech was one of the few major addresses at the convention that mentioned Gays.
"There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," he said to cheers. Then, in a series of examples of how reality defies the division of the country into conservative "red states" and liberal "blue states," he added, "yes, we've got some Gay friends in the red states."
But if Obama does run, it will also scramble Gay support -- in money, endorsements and votes -- for the other candidates in a crowded field of possibles that includes at least four other senators -- New York's Hillary Rodham Clinton, Indiana's Evan Bayh, Delaware's Joseph Biden and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold -- along with two governors -- Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Bill Richardson of New Mexico -- and maybe even repeat runs by Al Gore, John Kerry and John Edwards.
Last time around, in 2004, Gay Democrats flexed their political muscle as never before, providing the earliest financial backing for Howard Dean, who catapulted from nowhere to front-runner before imploding in a single "whoop" the night of the Iowa caucuses.
But Gay rights groups pretty much stayed neutral during the Democratic primary, waiting until after Kerry was nominated to endorse his candidacy. By doing so, they bought into the same logic that (mis)led the party's primary voters to Kerry as the "safest" pick, rather than the best on the issues. This time around, especially with the field so wide open, those groups and Gays generally should consider a different strategy.
As any political strategist will tell you, "special interests" like Gay rights supporters enjoy their greatest leverage during the primaries, where the motivated donors, organizers and voters are the key to victory. Dean's Gay backers did a tremendous service to the Gay rights movement by proving so influential in his early success.
This time around, Gay rights groups and other Gays should follow suit, throwing money and support to the viable candidate with the strongest record on our issues, including marriage. For at least the primary season, Gay Democrats and Gay rights groups should focus on influencing the entire field of candidates, and the party, on Gay rights issues rather than on winning the general election for Democrats. There'll be plenty of time for that.
It's too early, of course, to say exactly who the best candidate on Gay issues will be, but our early front-runner shouldn't be Barack or Hillary, but Russ Feingold, the maverick senator from Wisconsin who is among the very few in Congress -- and the only one among the current likely candidates who backs full marriage equality.
Expect a dead heat on practically every other major issue. Every top Democratic candidate is likely to back employment non-discrimination, hate crime laws, repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and defeat of a federal marriage amendment. In fact, the newly released "congressional scorecard" from the Human Rights Campaign reveals almost no difference among them, except that only Feingold and Kerry have co-sponsored legislation that would allow Gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for U.S.
All the major Democrats are also likely to back state-issued civil unions for Gay couples, with accompanying federal recognition, something both Kerry and Edwards did in 2004. That means the real progress on Gay rights from 2004 to 2008 will need to come on marriage, and there's plenty of room for that.
Even though Kerry received perfect scores on every HRC scorecard so far this century, his position on marriage was and is atrocious: He not only opposes Gay marriage, he backed a constitutional amendment in his home state to overturn the landmark Massachusetts high court opinion that first extended marriage rights to Gay couples. Dean recently said such amendments were motivated by hate. That may be a bit extreme, but it certainly raises the bar on the minimum expectation we should have from major Democratic presidential candidates.
However exciting Obama is on the stump, and however historic his candidacy and that of Clinton, both are on record opposing marriage equality. Feingold stands alone on marriage, and should be rewarded with Gay money and support.
There's plenty of time, once both parties have nominees -- remember that several popular GOP possibilities actually have decent Gay rights records -- to hitch our horse to the most likely winner.
Chris Crain is the former editor of the Washington Blade and Southern Voice newspapers and can be reached via www.citizencrain.com.