Governor Bill Richardson knows he made a bad move at last night’s “gay debates,” when he intimated that being gay is, in fact, a choice: a tired argument conservatives use against gay rights. If gays “choose” their “lifestyle,” then they don’t deserve “special” rights. Not the implication you want to make at a forum on gay rights.
Within minutes, the presidential hopeful had his team release a statement clarifying his position.
What a perfect conversation starter for Richardson and our editor, who met up with Richardson this morning. Get the goods on Richardson’s poor choice of words, what to do about anti-gay Saudis and who’s going to hell, after the jump…
Andrew Belonsky: Let’s start with “I’m not a scientist”. Of course you’re not. You’re a governor. What was going through your head when you stepped off the stage whether or not homosexuality is a choice?
Bill Richardson: I immediately realized that I had to fix my statement. I was confused by the question. I just simply made a mistake. I misunderstood the question. My impression – I thought it was a tricky science question, where you put politics into science. I think the word Melissa used was “biological”. Since I use “choice” so much, I’m so committed to choice – a woman’s right to choose – I thought that was the appropriate answer. I was confused about the question. Also, I had flown all night from New Hampshire. I was a little tired, but there’s no excuse. I made a mistake. I think my record stands for itself. I think it’s the best record of all the candidates. That’s my answer.
AB: Of your record, what are you most proud of?
BR: I’m proudest of the hate crimes legislation that included gender identity and the non-discrimination in employment – one legislative, the other an executive order. I’m also very proud of the fact that I’m the only candidate who has called a special session as a Governor just on domestic partnerships.
AB: I remember when that special session happened. Some people said that you were just playing politics. What do you have to say about that?
BR: Well, that’s incorrect. In the regular session, we almost got it passed. We lost by one vote. It was a vote that I thought we could get, so I was determined that we pass it in the special session. You know, gay rights is not popular in New Mexico. We’re talking about a red state. I think I’ve taken very strong, courageous positions. I think my record is the best [of the other candidates]. I hope I’m not judged by just one unfortunate misunderstanding.
AB: I’m always curious when I meet politicians – what motivated you to go into politics?
BR: Into politics?
AB: Yeah. It’s an ugly, dirty game. What drives you?
BR: I think my Catholic faith, my sense of social justice, my background as a Hispanic that believes diplomacy and negotiation is important. I’ve always tried to bring people together and I thought that politics was the best arena. My interest didn’t spark until I heard [VP] Hubert Humphrey as senator speak to a group of students.
AB: What did he say?
BR: He said, “Don’t forget about giving to the country and care about those who have no health, like Africa.” He particularly talked about Africa.
AB: With regard to foreign policy – I have a question specifically about sanctions. America has economic relations with a number of countries that outlaw homosexuality, for example, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. If you were President, how could you reconcile having those connections with countries that have death penalties for gay people?
BR: I’m also very concerned about this situation in Iraq. I’m not sure if you’ve seen that.
BR: Gay Iraqis have been targeted. Actually, they were doing better under Saddam Hussein than under this government… I would speak out very strongly on human rights issues. I believe that how a nation treats its own people in terms of the Geneva Convention, torture, lifestyle is going to be a factor in how I deal with other countries. I’m very concerned about counties like Saudi Arabia, Egypt: [countries] that not only teach anti-Americanism, but also mistreat their people. I would raise these issues a lot more than some of these other candidates.
AB: Back to Iraq. I read report a few months ago that implicated some American soldiers [in the death squads]. I understand that opinion within the military is changing, but how would you insure that there are no anti-gay sentiments in the military?
BR: I differ with Senator Edwards in his response yesterday. You have to have legislation to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In terms of attitudes, I would be sure that anyone I picked as head – you know, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretaries of the Army, Navy – I would stress to them as Commander-In-Chief that I expect zero tolerance for discrimination for anyone, especially gays.
AB: I read a book a few years ago called God Hates Fags. It’s about Colorado’s Amendment 2, which prohibited state organizations from granting gay people “special rights”. In that book, the author, Michael Cobb, argues that every nation needs to have a social scapegoat to keep its psychological fibers together. I don’t know if that is, in fact, true, but let’s assume for a second that it is true: every nation needs to have that scapegoat. How would you, as a leader, set an example of inclusion for the American people and break that trend?
BR: I would do it by deeds, not just speeches. I would push for four initiatives. I would try to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I would try to repeal No Child Left Behind, because it has some diversity education provision that is basically anti-gay. The third would be a repeal of DOMA. I would take the lead in pushing deeds, instead of just speeches. I think gay and lesbian people have had plenty of speeches and little leadership in pushing in getting legislation passed. [Finally], I would try to pass a hate crimes law. I would try to pass a full civil unions with full marriage rights. I would also – an important signal – include gays and lesbians in my cabinet.
AB: Why not just call it “marriage”?
BR: Because the country is on a path to full inclusion. I don’t think the country’s there on marriage. I think the president needs to lead and we need to find achievable steps before dealing with that issue. I don’t believe that – you have to what’s realistic. What’s realistic is a lot of steps in-between that haven’t happened.
AB: What about some of your Democratic peers?
BR: I think they’re all sincere. The difference between me and them is that I’ve done things. They talk about them. I’ve done things. I’ve passed laws that help gays and lesbians. I’ve appointed gays and lesbians. I’ve called legislative sessions in a red state that advance the human rights agenda. That’s the difference between me and the other Democratic candidates. And that’s why I hope I’m not judged by some misunderstanding. I’m taking responsibility for it. I regret it and I apologized for it. It can happen to anybody. I was caught off guard. I said it and I’m trying to fix it.
AB: Do you think faith has any role in politics?
BR: I think politicians can’t wear religion on their sleeve. But, you know, I am guided by my Catholic faith in social justice. I disagree with my faith on many issues, like [being] pro-choice and gay rights.
AB: Do you believe in hell?
AB: Who’s going there?
BR: The bad people.
AB: Murderers and rapists?
AB: If I were really anti-gay, how would you convince me to not be? Pretend I’m a Republican conservative.
BR: I would say that this country is based on respect for human rights and the Constitution respects equality of all and it would be consistent with constitutional principles to support gays and lesbians. It’s not a matter of being a special interest. It’s more an interest of full equality for all people. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the human, decent thing to do.
AB: We have a very unique campaign right now. We have you [a Hispanic], a black man and a woman. Over and over again last night, I kept hearing people – including yourself – relate their own personal struggles to gay people’s struggles. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
BR: I was trying to make the point that [I'm] somebody who was made fun of for being Hispanic.
AB: If you weren’t running, who would you vote for?
BR: Eh, I’m not doing that.
AB: Alright, if you don’t win, what are you going to do?
BR: I’ll go back and be the happiest man in the world – finish my four years as governor of New Mexico, a job I like. I’m not interested in being vice-president or Secretary of State, if that’s going to be your next question.
AB: It wasn’t going to be. Do you want to stay in politics?
BR: I never preclude anything. I have three years to be governor, but I think I have a chance, otherwise I wouldn’t be running. I think I can make a difference. I may not have the bucks and the political pedigree as others, but I think I’ve got the best experience. I’m the candidate who can change the country the most because of my record and my abilities. I believe I’m electable. More than the other candidates.
AB: You said America’s on the path to inclusion. I want to know what makes you say that.
BR: I can sense that the country is changing. You can’t measure success of the equality agenda just by what’s happening around you. A lot of states are being more progressive. A lot of states are taking these issues in their own hands and I think that’s great. That’s where I see the changes. In fact, I think the great laboratories of innovation and change in this country are states.