Despite tensions between candidates’ supporters, community will back eventual nominee, activists say
Local gay Democrats this week downplayed the rivalry within the LGBT community between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The rivalry first became apparent during a February meeting of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, when Obama supporters tried to block the group’s proposed endorsement of Clinton.
Last week, in the wake of the March 4 Texas primary and caucuses, the rivalry spilled onto the comments section of Dallas Voice’s blog, Instant Tea, as well as the pages of The Washington Blade.
The Blade, the country’s oldest gay newspaper, called the rivalry within the LGBT community during the primary and caucuses "intense."
At the center of the rivalry locally has been openly gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, a vocal Obama supporter and campaign volunteer whose name recently appeared on a national list of LGBT endorsements released by the Illinois senator’s campaign.
Fitzsimmons, one of the founders of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, was criticized for making the motion seeking debate on the group’s proposed endorsement of Clinton, which had been recommended by a candidate screening committee.
Fitzsimmons, whose motion was defeated, later said he was hoping for a co-endorsement of the two candidates. He also said he doesn’t feel the current rivalry will prevent the LGBT community from uniting behind the eventual Democratic nominee.
"There are always angry people," Fitzsimmons said Monday, March 17.
"People are passionately supporting their candidate of choice. … There’s no question that we’re all going to come together. There’s nobody in Stonewall who would ever say ‘I’m not going to support Obama’ or ‘I’m not going to support Hillary.’"
Fitzsimmons noted it’s not the first time the LGBT community has been divided over presidential candidates. He recalled the Democratic contest in Texas in 1980, when the community was split between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. In 2004, when Stonewall Democrats of Dallas seemed ready to endorse Howard Dean, Fitzsimmons orchestrated a co-endorsement of Dean and eventual nominee John Kerry.
This year, according to exit polls and results from heavily gay precincts across the country, a majority in the LGBT community supports Clinton. In Dallas, Clinton won the popular vote in Dallas County’s six most heavily gay precincts by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, despite a countywide victory for Obama of 61 percent to 38 percent.
In response to Fitzsimmons’ motion, Stonewall member and Clinton supporter Jeff Strater, who was sitting nearby, threatened to oppose the district clerk’s re-election bid in 2010. But Strater, vice president of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance and co-chairman of the Human Rights Campaign’s local steering committee, later said he didn’t mean it.
"I was really upset by his motion," Strater said. "I definitely think that it was an unfortunate incident, the fact that it was even made. I plan on supporting Gary in the future. It was out of frustration, and it was a joke."
Obama supporters argue that Stonewall’s full membership should have had an opportunity to debate the group’s endorsement in the presidential race. But Clinton supporters say it was appropriate to give more weight to the recommendation of the committee, which spent an entire Sunday in January interviewing local Democratic candidates and representatives from the presidential campaigns.
Jason Bradberry, a Stonewall member who supports Obama, said he felt the group’s endorsement of Clinton was "railroaded." When the screening committee met, John Edwards was still in the race, and it hadn’t become apparent that Texas would matter.
"Just to leave it up to the committee’s recommendation was a little shortsighted," Bradberry said. "It really disenfranchised the membership."
Stonewall President Jesse Garcia, a Clinton supporter, countered that all members were invited to serve on the screening committee by attending the January session, which was widely publicized in advance.
Garcia also said he clearly laid out the ground rules for both sides prior to the February meeting, which drew a record attendance. After Fitzsimmons’ motion was defeated 67-35, Stonewall members voted to ratify the group’s full slate of 24 endorsements, including Clinton, by a margin of 82-24.
"Nothing was railroaded," Garcia said. "What happened was one side just didn’t bring the numbers needed."
Garcia said he feels the rivalry between Clinton and Obama supporters in the LGBT community has been blown out of proportion. He said about 70 members attended Stonewall’s regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, March 18, when the group went over election results.
"If there was tension, I didn’t see it last night," Garcia said Wednesday. "We had Hillary supporters sitting right across from Barack supporters. They all broke bread together."
Bradberry said although gay Democrats may unite behind the party’s nominee, he thinks there will be some hurt feelings. Bradberry said he voted against ratifying the group’s full slate of endorsements based on his support for Obama.
"If Obama wins, they’re going to scrunch up their faces and pout about it, but they’ll end up voting for Obama in the end," Bradberry said of Clinton supporters.
Garcia said that’s not the case, adding that he’s already researched Obama’s positions so he’ll be prepared to defend them.
"I’m a very passionate Hillary supporter, but I’m ready to jump on Obama’s bandwagon if he gets nominated," Garcia said.
The race now moves on to the next delegate-rich race of Pennsylvania, where representatives from Stonewall chapters say they’re already starting to see the Clinton-Obama rivalry play out.
Janis Williams, political director for Steel City Democrats, the Stonewall chapter in Pittsburgh, said the group’s leaders considered skipping an endorsement in the presidential race because they sensed tension.
They decided to go ahead with it, and Steel City Democrats voted to endorse Clinton. But when Williams sent out an e-mail to members seeking volunteers to work a phone bank for Clinton’s campaign, she received seven or eight strongly worded responses from Obama supporters.
Williams said she initially supported John Edwards, then was undecided for a time before recently getting behind Obama.
"There are some people I still haven’t told that to just because I know they feel so strongly about Hillary," Williams said. "I hope we all recognize what a John McCain presidency would be like for our community. Really, that’s what we need to not lose sight of."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 21, 2008