Walsh touts Clinton’s track record as advocate for LGBT rights; Wolff says Obama will build necessary coalition
There are few differences between the policy positions of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on LGBT issues.
But there is a difference when it comes to the question of who’s better prepared to advance LGBT causes, top gay advisers from the two campaigns said during an unprecedented town hall-style debate at Station 4 in Dallas on Monday, Feb. 25.
At times, it was as though Clinton and Obama themselves had taken the stage in the Rose Room of the gay nightclub, where about 100 people gathered for the event hosted by National Stonewall Democrats.
Mark Walsh, Clinton’s national director of LGBT outreach, and Tobias Wolff, chair of Obama’s national LGBT policy committee, seemed to echo what have become familiar themes for the two Democratic presidential candidates.
Walsh touted the former first lady’s experience and record.
"While I think we have two terrific candidates, I think there is a real difference here," Walsh said. "For me, that difference is a difference between words and actions. Hillary Clinton is the one who’s actually rolled up her sleeves and worked for our community."
Wolff said Obama also has a strong record on LGBT issues, but he said the U.S. senator from Illinois offers something Clinton does not.
"He has been challenging the very people that we need to reach, the very people whose minds we need to change, the very people who we need to include in a broad coalition for basic change, and he has been bringing to them his message of LGBT equality," Wolff said.
Walsh said Clinton led opposition in the U.S. Senate to a proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2006.
Clinton has appeared in gay Pride parades as both a first lady and a senator, and she’s said she wants to be the first president to do so.
Walsh also said Clinton’s campaign staff includes many openly gay people, including her national field and political director, national operations director, state director in Ohio and communications director in California.
"Hillary Clinton surrounds herself with members of our community," Walsh said.
Wolff said Obama was a co-sponsor of fully inclusive nondiscrimination legislation when he was a member of the Illinois Legislature. The legislation since has become a model for other states.
Wolff also said Obama went on record in favor of a full repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, during his campaign for U.S. Senate in 2004.
Throughout Obama’s 11 years in public office, "he has been a friend to the LGBT community," Wolff said.
"He has been taking courageous positions since before it was popular to take courageous positions."
In response to a question from panelist Tammye Nash, senior editor of Dallas Voice, Walsh and Wolff acknowledged that both candidates oppose same-sex marriage.
Instead, Clinton and Obama support civil unions, which according to a recent New Jersey study give gay and lesbian couples "second-class status."
"My answer is simple, I disagree with him on this issue," Wolff said of Obama.
But Walsh and Wolff also said they believe the candidates are open to future debate.
"What I’m committed to doing is continuing to push the issue," Walsh said.
One area where the candidates disagree is repealing the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.
Obama favors a full repeal of DOMA, while Clinton wants to get rid of only the section that prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples.
A partial repeal would allow same-sex couples to receive federal benefits, according to Clinton, while ensuring that the issue of marriage is left to the states.
"Her view is that Section 2 of DOMA helped defeat the Federal Marriage Amendment," Walsh said.
But Wolff argued that a partial repeal would allow states to ignore legal partnerships entered elsewhere. "It means that gay and lesbian couples are effectively prevented from moving freely around the country," Wolff said.
In response to another question from Nash, Walsh and Wolff said both candidates support a national AIDS strategy, increased funding for HIV/AIDS and needle exchange laws.
But as Clinton and Obama have done so often, Walsh and Wolff clashed over who has the better universal health care plan.
"Her plan requires that everyone be covered," Walsh said of Clinton. "Barack Obama’s plan does not."
"The day that Hillary Clinton actually goes on record explaining how she’s going to punish people who don’t satisfy her mandate is the day she’ll have some credibility [on this issue]," Wolff responded.
Audience members asked questions about immigration, taxes, disability benefits, getting out the vote and even the prominence of LGBT-related material on the candidates’ Web sites.
But the final question of the night, from National Stonewall Democrats board member Paul Tran of Dallas, proved to be the most controversial.
In what appeared to be an attack on Obama, Tran brought up the candidate’s decision to allow ex-gay singer/minister Donnie McClurkin to be part of his campaign gospel tour in South Carolina.
Wolff responded that it was "a mistake" and said that as soon as Obama learned of McClurkin’s views on gays, he publicly denounced them.
But Walsh noted that Obama didn’t cancel McClurkin’s appearance.
"If it was a mistake, why did they continue it?" Walsh said. "If it was a mistake, why didn’t he say, ‘We’ve made a mistake, we’ve asked him not to be part of this program.’"
Wolff said Obama opted not to cancel the concert because it would have been unfair to the 2,800 people who’d already purchased tickets.
"The right way to handle it, instead, was to go on record immediately and clearly repudiating the guy’s views and starting the kind of dialogue that he’s been continuing since then," Wolff said.
The audience appeared to be split about evenly between Clinton and Obama supporters.
Those in attendance included openly gay former Dallas city councilman Ed Oakley, who supports Clinton.
"He talks in too many platitudes, and there’s no substance to it," Oakley said of Obama. "They [the Clintons] have a proven track record with this community, and I don’t know what Obama’s track record is."
Also on hand was Arizona’s first openly lesbian state legislator, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who was visiting Texas on behalf of Obama.
"Barack Obama brings something to politics that’s never been seen in my lifetime and I’m not sure will ever be seen again," Sinema said. "I can’t imagine sitting at home and not being a part of it."
Sinema said regardless of who wins, Democrats must rally around their candidate in November.
Sinema, who lives just a few miles from likely Republican nominee John McCain in Phoenix, did battle with McCain in 2006 when he became a spokesman for a proposed amendment to Arizona’s constitution banning same-sex marriage.
"I think it’s incredibly important that we [Democrats] win," Sinema said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 29, 2008.