Congresswoman’s campaign claims she’s been ‘100% on LGBT issues for 20 years’ despite vote for DOMA

TAKING THE OATH | U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, above second from right, participates in a ceremonial swearing in with Speaker John Boehner on Jan. 5, 2011. A Johnson campaign ad that appeared in the May 11 issue of Dallas Voice, below, claimed Johnson has been “100% on LGBT ISSUES FOR 20 YEARS,” despite the fact that she voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. (Photo by the Associated Press)

ANNA WAUGH  |  Staff Writer

Dallas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson has been running misleading campaign ads, boasting a perfect record on LGBT issues when she voted in favor of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

The issue of the ads surfaced this week after Johnson placed her longtime chief of staff on administrative leave for an email he allegedly wrote in 2010 that criticized a gay staffer.

Despite repeated attempts by Dallas Voice over three days, neither Johnson nor a spokesman for her office responded to requests for comment this week.

Johnson received a 100 percent score for her voting record from the Human Rights Campaign in 2010, but she hasn’t always had a perfect score. Her first score in 1994 was 100, followed by an 89 in 1996 after the 104th Congress.

Her score reflected the 11 points deducted for voting in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

She voted in favor of DOMA along with 342 other members of Congress, with only 67 voting against it. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, entered present during the vote. Jackson Lee scored a 100 that year.

Two terms later, in the scorecard for the 106th Congress, Johnson was given a score of 90 for not voting in favor of an amendment to restore $10 million to the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cut the program’s budget.

Johnson has since maintained her 100 score for the last 12 years. But her current campaign ad that ran in the Voice last week states that she is “100% on LGBT issues for 20 years.” A 2010 ad reads that she had been 100 percent for 18 years.

Johnson is now a co-sponsor for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA, as well as a co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and Student Non-Discrimination Act.

In a 2010 interview with Dallas Voice, Johnson said, “When they [the LGBT community] really got my attention was when they [anti-gay conservatives] were talking about putting something in the Constitution,” she said, apparently referring to efforts to pass a federal marriage amendment in 2004 and 2006. “You know, I have never seen them amend the Constitution to take rights away from people. So that’s just the beginning and the end of my philosophy.”

During the current election cycle, Dallas Voice has inquired about whether Johnson plans to sign a Freedom To Marry petition in support of adding marriage equality to the Democratic National Committee’s platform. Johnson’s office has not responded to the newspaper’s inquiries.

HRC spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz confirmed in an email that Johnson voted for DOMA in 1996, adding that she “has a long history of supporting the LGBT community.”

“While her vote for DOMA in the ’90s was disappointing, we are glad that she’s on the right side of history today calling for its repeal,” Cole-Schwartz wrote.

Openly gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons said every candidate for public office needs to be certain that the advertisements they run are true.

“Anybody running for public office including me have to be very careful that we are scrupulously factual in our campaign messaging,” he said.

While he added that Johnson “certainly has an admirable record on LGBT issues,” he said he hadn’t been aware of her vote in favor of DOMA.

Christopher Crowe

Christopher Crowe

In fact, many people, including her campaign staff, expressed shock when Dallas Voice brought the vote to their attention.

Omar Narvaez, president of the Dallas chapter of Stonewall Democrats, said Johnson has always supported the LGBT community and has the most LGBT staffers of any other member of Congress.

“If that is true, than that’s the perfect example of the LGBT community educating an elected official to be on the correct side of equality,” Narvaez said about Johnson supporting DOMA. “I don’t know how many people have a record better than that that are still serving in Congress.”

Narvaez said that there “could be a mistake somewhere” among the staffers who may have overlooked the DOMA vote 16 years ago, leading to the incorrect ads.

The email Johnson’s chief of staff Murat Gokcigdem allegedly wrote in 2010 was sent to the Washington Blade on May 14 and reveals how Gokcigdem didn’t think a gay legislative aide was prepared for a position in the U.S. Treasury Department.

The aide, Christopher Crowe, was seeking a recommendation as one of four finalists for special assistant to the undersecretary of budget and tax in the Treasury Department. Crowe, who headed the LGBT Congressional Staff Association, died last year of a staph infection.

Gokcigdem’s June 2010 email was intended for Johnson, but was mistakenly sent to Crowe.

In the email, Gokcigdem wrote that he couldn’t believe Crowe was a serious candidate because he was underqualified and lacked the “expertise or the vast knowledge,” suggesting that Crowe was only being considered because he was gay.

“It is my personal belief that he has contacts there [in the White House],” Gokcigdem wrote. “And they, as a group watching and supporting each other if you know what I mean.”

He also wrote that Crowe’s performance was “somewhat satisfactory” and mentions that he “had issues with him both professionally and personally” before asking how he should proceed in a drafting a letter for Crowe.

Narvaez said the email is a “non-issue” and should not affect voters’ decisions because Johnson did the right thing by investigating it.

“This is two years later and in all honesty what the email was in regards to had more to do with … helping him than any kind of anti-LGBT bias of any kind,” he said. “I do believe this is all politically motivated.”

Johnson is facing two challengers in the Democratic primary, for which early voting started the day the email was leaked. This is the first time Johnson has faced primary competition since her election in 1992.

Narvaez attributes the email to a disgruntled staffer, citing the scholarship scandal in 2010 in which Johnson awarded scholarships to her grandchildren without knowing it was against the rules.

Dallas attorney Taj Clayton and state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, D-Dallas, are running against Johnson in the primary.

Caraway didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Clayton declined to speak out against Johnson’s record.

Clayton said he is in favor of marriage equality and opposes DOMA.

“I’m in this race not to tear down but to build up our community and the constituents that I seek to represent so I’m running on my own record,” Clayton said. “Her votes speak for herself — all of them.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 18, 2012.