Out to Vote

The Woo Factor

But does the number of gay voters matter to the major political parties and their candidates? It depends on who you ask. Clearly, many Democrats across the country have worked hard in recent years to court gay voters. The Clinton administration has appointed a number of openly gay officials to key government posts. It also has backed legislation on hate crimes, and a bill that would bar anti-gay employment discrimination. In addition, Clinton and Al Gore have made high-profile speeches at events hosted by gay rights organizations. Texas Democrats also are seeking out gay voters, and a number of Democratic candidates this year have hired special liaisons to the gay and lesbian community. That community "is important to us, just like the Hispanic community and the African-American community" and other interest groups that make up the Democratic coalition, says Mario Llano, gay liaison for Garry Mauro's campaign for governor. Of course, Mauro, trailing incumbent George W. Bush badly in polls, needs all the votes he can get right now.

By and large, gay and lesbian organizations have responded positively to Democratic efforts. All candidates endorsed by LGRL's Equity PAC this year are Democrats. The Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus (ALGPC) also ended up endorsing only Democrats. In fact, only two Republicans even sought the group's endorsement. Members of both organizations say they wish there were moderate Republicans in Texas who were worthy of gay support, especially at the state level. They often point as an example to former Massachusetts governor William Weld, a Republican who risked the wrath of religious conservatives by supporting gay rights initiatives. But, says Allan Baker, ALGPC's chairman, "Texas does not have a moderate Republican Party. Texas has a Republican Party that is more driven by the radical right."

The GOP's image in the eyes of gay and lesbian voters certainly wasn't helped earlier this year when the Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Trent Lott of Mississippi, called gays and lesbians sinners, and likened them to alcoholics and kleptomaniacs. But the Texas GOP has been especially nasty. In June, in a repeat of a similar confrontation in 1996, party leaders refused to allow the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay organization, to set up a booth inside the Republican state convention in Fort Worth. The state Republican party communications director, Robert Black, accused Log Cabin and other groups of using "hateful language against people of faith." He also likened Log Cabin to the Ku Klux Klan and organizations for child molesters. Black, still the party's communications director, hasn't budged much from his position in June: "Considering the traditional Republican principles against the homosexual lifestyle, we do not consider the gay vote to have that much of an effect on Republican politics." What if a gay group wanted to back Republican candidates? Black: "I would guess, by and large, that most Republicans would not embrace an endorsement from a homosexual organization."

Black might be surprised, then, by another finding in NGLTF's report on gay voting. According to the report, one in four self-identified gay voters cast ballots for Republicans in 1996. But this doesn't surprise Steve Labinski, an Austin entrepreneur and president of Texas Log Cabin Republicans. In fact, Labinski believes that the NGLTF report underestimates the number of potential gay Republican voters out there: "There probably would be more if the party discontinued its attacks on homosexuals." Labinski says Log Cabin's growth has been increasing rapidly, especially after the group's confrontation with the state GOP in Fort Worth last June, but the organization does not release membership figures. Log Cabin members believe their party will change over time as other Republicans who are more moderate on social issues step up to the battle. "You don't have to be gay to be unhappy and upset by the religious right in the Republican Party," Labinski says. "They insult everybody."

This year, Log Cabin is endorsing no Republican candidates in the statewide races. "There is more work to do with some candidates and with other Republicans before we're comfortable with each other," Labinski says. Translation: Statewide Republican candidates would rather be locked in a room with crazed pigs.

But, Black's earlier comments notwithstanding, there are Republicans at the local level who have sought gay support. The Austin chapter of Log Cabin has endorsed more than a half-dozen Travis County Republican candidates who sought their backing. Two of them also sought ALGPC's endorsement -- Fred Ebner, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Glen Maxey for the District 51 state House seat (see box), and Marian Bloss, who is challenging incumbent Wilford Flowers for 147th District judge. Bloss says she sought the endorsement of gay organizations because "any law-abiding, tax-paying citizen's vote is important." Bloss admits that seeking the support of gay organizations might cost her the vote of some social conservatives, but she believes that far more Republicans share her views on the issue. "All I can say is, I'm not prejudiced," Bloss says. "I think [sexual orientation] is a private matter, and I don't think anybody should be hated."

Bloss and other Republicans argue that most gay organizations are Democratic fronts and that Democratic candidates often take the support of gay voters for granted. It is true, of course, that some Democrats have lacked sufficient commitment to promises made to gay voters during campaigns. President Clinton, for example, broke a promise to lift the ban on gays in the military. Locally, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett angered gay voters in 1996 by breaking a promise to co-sponsor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, though he still supports it. (Doggett subsequently failed to win ALGPC's endorsement for re-election.) And both Clinton and Doggett supported the superfluous Defense of Marriage Act, shamelessly caving to folks who wanted another political club to beat gays and lesbians, and win the hearts and souls of people like Pat Robertson (700 Club, Christian Coalition) and James Dobson (Focus on the Family). But some gay political activists plead for perspective -- the need to look at the entire record of friends like Clinton and Doggett who sometimes stray from the preferred path. "I try to view our political success in increments," says LGRL's Hardy-Garcia. "If I can get one or two things out of a candidate, I consider that a success considering where we were 10 or 20 years ago."

That makes sense right now. But if gay voters can show that they are numerous enough to sway elections, more candidates -- Democrats and Republicans -- likely will seek their support. And if that happens, the bar measuring success will need to be raised.

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