As presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama romanced major donors of Hillary Clinton in Washington, D.C. on Thursday evening, potential first lady Michelle Obama appeared in New York City to facilitate post-primary healing among members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and to appeal for their financial support. On the verge of the weekend’s massive Gay Pride celebrations, she was the keynote speaker at the annual gala for the Democratic National Committee’s Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council, the group that aims to advance LGBT priorities within the party.
Preceded by warm remarks from Michelle Paterson, the First Lady of New York, and followed by DNC Chairman Howard Dean, Obama received a standing ovation from the overwhelmingly white, and presumably well-heeled, gay male crowd of approximately 175 people in the Starlight Room on the eighteenth floor of the Waldorf Astoria in East Midtown. A brief report on WNYC-FM this morning said the DNC estimates the event raised $1.3 million.
Fresh off an appearance last week on ABC’s “The View” and newly assigned with her own chief of staff, Obama delivered a solid, 17-minute speech that concentrated on her husband’s record on LGBT issues, and his vision for the community’s place in America, should he be elected president. She mentioned that June 26 was the fifth anniversary of Lawrence v. Texas, the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down the state’s anti-sodomy law, and she used the phrase, “from Selma to Stonewall,” to connect the gay and civil rights movements.
“Barack is not new to the cause of the LGBT community,” Obama said. “It has been a conviction of his career since he was first elected to public office.” She listed gay-positive credentials like his work as a state senator to amend the Illinois Human Rights Act to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in areas like housing and employment, which passed in 2004, and his call as a U.S. Senator for a complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages and relieves states of any obligation to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
If elected, Obama said that her husband would reverse laws such as DOMA, end the prohibition against gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, advance stalled legislation to protect the LGBT community against hate crimes and workplace discrimination, and work to achieve equal rights for gay and lesbian families.
“Barack has made crystal clear his commitment to ensuring full equality for LGBT couples,” she said. “That’s why he supports robust civil unions. That is why he has said that the federal government should not stand in the way of the states that want to decide for themselves how best to pursue equality for gay and lesbian couples, whether that means domestic partnerships, civil unions or civil marriage.” She noted his opposition to the November ballot initiative in California that would overturn the recent court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.
That Michelle Obama, currently in the midst of a much-hyped “makeover,” would address a high-profile gay crowd is evidence not only of the political progress of the LGBT community in recent years, but also of the importance that Democratic candidates attach to this group of donors and voters. Although they did not receive the kind of attention showered on women, African Americans and the working class during the primary season, savvy politicians acknowledge the high levels of political involvement among self-identified LGBT people, a predominantly Democratic segment that, like many others, found itself torn between support for Obama and Clinton.
Last November, a Hunter College Poll on the political behavior of lesbians, gays and bisexuals found that the group is more likely than the general population to be interested in and participate in politics and hold liberal views, and that nearly two-thirds of gay voters in the Democratic primary favored Clinton. That percentage seemed to decrease over the subsequent months as more LGBT voters became familiar with Barack Obama, as indicated by this Super Tuesday exit poll from New York, which shows support for the two candidates among gay voters as statistically indistinguishable from that of all voters.
“Given that LGBs are such loyal Democrats,” e-mailed Patrick Egan, an assistant professor of politics at New York University and one of the authors of the Hunter College Poll, “we therefore have reason to expect LGBs to play a role in Democratic Party fundraising and organization that is larger than their share of Democratic voters. Smart candidates need to figure out how to reach this population.”
On Thursday night, Howard Dean, chairman of the DNC and a frequent target for critics of his party’s primary process, directly confronted any lingering grievances from Clinton supporters in his address that followed Obama.
“I particularly want to say thank you to the people here who supported Hillary Clinton,” said Dean, himself an unsuccessful former presidential candidate, to applause. He continued, “It is a special effort for those of you who are supporters of Senator Clinton, or have been supporters of Senator Clinton, to come tonight, so that you can contribute to the campaign of the person who beat Senator Clinton, and I recognize that, and I deeply appreciate your willingness to put your country up front and put aside your own understandable, deep emotional feelings about the campaign.”
Seconds later, however, Dean dispensed with the niceties and provided an indication of how acrimonious the general election campaign could become. He portrayed the presumptive Republican opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona, as a formerly independent thinker who now represents the possibility of a third term for George W. Bush.
“I frankly don’t believe that the John McCain of 2000 would even consider voting for the John McCain of 2008, I really don’t,” said Dean, listing reversals that McCain has undergone from his previous positions on tax cuts, immigration reform, and his one-time opposition to torture. He even ventured a shot a McCain’s reliance on military credentials as a qualification for the presidency.
“This is a guy who appears not to have principles,” said Dean, “and if you don’t have principles when you’re president, you shouldn’t be president. Wanting to be president and serving America honorably in the armed forces is not a good enough reason to be president if you don’t have a core set of beliefs that you’re willing to stand for.”
Democrats are hoping that, gay or not, everyone in their party can rally around that message this fall.