Obama’s Gay Backers

Hillary Clinton has long been a gay ally. Who could forget how the former First Lady invited gays into the White House, tried to set up gay administration staffers and marched in New York City’s gay pride parade? No wonder so many gay people are throwing their vote behind the Senator from New York.

What would possess a gay person, then, to vote for Barack Obama, a fairly unknown candidate from Illinois? Our editor recently sat down with three of Obama’s key gay campaigners to figure out what makes them tick and tock for Obama’s presidential clock.

Read all about them – and so much more – after the jump.

Tobias Wolff got his political feet wet advising Democrat John Kerry during the 2004 election. Now, four years on, the University of Pennsylvania professor’s the Chair of Obama’s National LGBT Policy Committee. Despite his electoral track record, Wolff describes himself as “no political player”.

It’s his experience as a civil rights lawyer, he says, that landed him in the political game: “My job and my calling as a scholar and a lawyer is to understand our constitution and our legal system. I care about it very deeply and I am very passionate about it.”

Wolff’s especially enthusiastic about marriage equality and issued briefs in the California and Hawaii cases. He also plans to file one in Iowa.

The lawyer’s activist past clashes a bit with Obama, who endorses civil unions, but not gay marriage. So, how does Wolff reconcile this political difference? He doesn’t.

Andrew Belonsky: How did you get involved in Barack Obama’s campaign?

Tobias Wolff: The campaign called me in the late spring and asked me to be the Chair of the LGBT policy group. I had known a couple of people on the Obama campaign from the work that I did in the Kerry campaign. They knew my work as a scholar and a civil rights lawyer…

AB: Okay, so why did you agree to get involved with the campaign?

TW: He’s the first national politician in my adult life who has inspired me and makes me feel genuinely excited about being involved in national politics.

AB: What’s so inspiring?

TW: For starters, he is a really principled and committed progressive. He exhibits not just an understanding of the lives and the interests of ordinary people, but also an integrity in representing their interests and fighting for their interests. He has an ability to speak in a way that transcends the vocabulary that we’ve gotten used to hearing at a national political level. I think that for far too long, really since Watergate, frankly, it’s been difficult to get an audience for a progressive message on a national level. Barack Obama really represents values that are broadly shared values, values that large majorities of the American public really embrace, but haven’t had an effective voice at the national level. It is stirring.

AB: What happened in California? I mean, California is indicative of the way a lot of gay people vote. They feel indebted to the Clintons in a lot of ways.

TW: Sure.

AB: They recognize the Clintons. I think that people probably aren’t considering policies and things like that. So, why is Obama not gaining traction among gay people?

TW: I think there are a few things to say about what happened in California. The first is that Barack had extraordinary success in California compared to where the polling numbers were a month before the election. But, bottom line, she won the state and she should be commended for that. Where the gay vote is concerned, I think that the Clintons enjoy the benefit of a lot of affection for something real that they did. The Clinton presidency was the first occasion gay people were invited to participate in national politics and were formally recognized as part of the American community, that the White House would be speaking to and the White House would take pictures with and invite to parties. That was largely symbolic, but just as important. That was an enormous step forward and the Clintons are to be commended for that. That’s the good story to tell about the Clinton presidency and LGBT Americans.

AB: Okay.

TW: The bad story, of course, is the actual result that the presidency produced: the only two occasions in American history when anti-gay policies were written into the statutes of the United States. I think the story of the gay vote in this election, once again, has been the story of a familiar name, a familiar brand and then gay and lesbian voters having to learn about somebody new. I think the more LGBT people learn about Barack”s record on LGBT equality and HIV/AIDS and the way that he talks about LGBT equality to general audiences, the more excited they become and the more they switch over to his side.

AB: Let’s talk hypothetical: what if Obama doesn’t win the nomination? What if Hillary gets it? Do you back her?

TW: I’ll tell you what I’ve always said – both of these are very good candidates. They both have good records of accomplishment and they’re both candidates that I’d much rather see in the White House than John McCain. I will certainly vote for Hillary Clinton if she is the nominee. Will I publicly endorse her and lend my efforts to her campaign? That’s a decision that I’ll make after things play out.

AB: What about her stance on DOMA?

TW: I find her position on DOMA quite unacceptable. It is incomprehensible to me that she continues to support vicious anti-gay legislation. When Representative Lewis spoke on the House floor against DOMA when it was enacted and, invoking the full authority of his experience in the civil rights movement, he said, “I know what bigotry looks like and this is bigotry, pure and simple”. I cannot understand why Senator Clinton will not endorse a full repeal of that statute. It’s incomprehensible to me.

AB: And you do not endorse civil unions?

TW: No. The one issue pretty much in the entire LGBT arena that I disagree with Barack on is the marriage equality issue. When the campaign brought on to fulfill this role, they knew very well that I’m a quite prominent gay marriage advocate. I made clear from that start that when this issue comes up, it would be a very simple, “Yeah, this is an issue that I disagree with Barack on”. The campaign has never been skittish about that. I hold very strongly the view that if we can get civil unions in every state in the nation, then that would be an immense step forward, but I’m also of the view that we deserve to be treated equally under the law. That means if straight have access to civil marriage, then gay couples should as well.

Stampp Corbin’s connection to the Obama campaign goes back to his childhood in Chicago, where he and Michelle Obama (née Robinson) went to school together.

Their paths crossed again at Harvard – Corbin was finishing up business school as the Obamas were starting their law degree. Many years and a successful computer scrapping company later, Corbin ran into Michelle at their high school’s 30th birthday.

They reconnected and when it came time to launch the campaign, Corbin signed on as the National LGBT Policy Committee Co-Chair. His childhood with Michelle Robinson doesn’t motivate Corbin, however. Nor does the fact that Obama’s also black.

Unlike his colleague Tobias Wolff, Corbin says his gay identity motivated him to back Obama.

AB: Obviously I’m curious to know why you support Barack Obama for president.

SC: One, Barack Obama is great on LGBT issues and that’s of primary importance to me. Secondarily, I look at all of the other issues across the spectrum. There are a variety of them, from the war in Iraq to economic policies, but from an LGBT perspective, I think he’s better on those issues, particularly with the DOMA situation. He wants the full deal and Clinton believes – it’s just a difference of opinion. It’s strategic to leave parts of this Defense of Marriage Act so our opponents can’t get a federal marriage amendment passed. [But] I don’t think a federal marriage amendment can get passed if we have a Democratic president.

AB: What about after a Democratic president?

SC: I hope that’s eight years from now or twelve years from now. I think the progress that we’ve made in the past twelve years will only be usurped by the progress we make over the next twelve years. If you had talked to me or any host of activists twelve years ago, when the concept was 80/20 – 80% of the American people against, 20% of the American people for – compared to where we are with civil unions today with Americans support civil unions. That is progress. Why would I expect there to be a regression in the next twelve years?

AB: Yes, but just because you don’t expect it to happen doesn’t mean it couldn’t.

SC: No, but I don’t think we should have policies that discriminate against LGBT folk because we think it’s a defensive strategy. That’s sort of like telling us African-Americans, “The reason that we’re not giving you the right to vote is because we think that it’s going to create a wave of anti-minority legislation”. It’s counter-intuitive to me. We should try to move forward while we can.

AB: You said you’re primarily motivated by Obama’s stance on gay issues.

SC: Primarily, yes, gay issues are important to me. I am fortunately one of those Americans who has had much success in his life and was fortunate enough to go to Harvard and Stanford and so, you know, I don’t have necessarily the monetary issues. I line up exactly with both Hillary and Barack in terms of their economic policies. There’s not that much difference between them, but there are some differences and DOMA happens to be a difference.

AB: As a black man, how do you feel about having a black candidate who’s actually a viable candidate for the presidency?

SC: That is not a factor in my decision. In 1988 a gay man Mike Duffy decided that he wanted to run for a city council seat in Boston. He was running for the south end, which was at that time a gay neighborhood, and he was going to run against the African-American sitting city council person who had sponsored the gay rights bill. The gay people said, “We have to support one of our own” and I was sitting there thinking, “Gosh, both candidates represent me” and that’s when I had an epiphany: it’s not really about this tribalism, it’s really about who’s the best candidate. And I went with the African-American candidate, because he had sponsored the gay rights bill! How could a gay person say they’re going to be better than a person who really took the risk and sponsored the gay rights bill? Ultimately that city council person won… So, when you ask me, “Am I happy he’s an African-American candidate?” Sure. Is that why I supported him? Of course not.

AB: What happens if Barack Obama doesn’t win the nomination?

SC: First, I don’t live in that possibility, I really don’t. I think that if you crunch the numbers and you look at Texas and Ohio, we’re going to go into the convention with a lead in terms of pledged delegates. I think that ultimately based upon the way that superdelegates are falling these days, we’re positive sixteen, I think that we’re going to win the nomination. I also believe that the vision, optimism and enthusiasm that Barack Obama brings to the campaign vis a vis John McCain, I think you’re going to see independents and former Reagan Democrats will break to the Obama camp and ultimately he will be successful in his bid to be the next president of the United States.

Eric Stern didn’t start an Obama supporter. The self-described “proud Ohioan” actually originally endorsed John Edwards, with whom he had become acquainted during the Senators’ 2004 campaign with John Kerry.

As we all know, of course, Edwards dropped out of the race, leaving his supporters – gay and straight – scrambling to find new candidates. Stern chose Obama for at least one of the same reasons he chose Edwards: his rejection of special interest donations.

Said Stern, who once led the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT outreach program, “I worked in Washington for ten years and I can tell you personally that it’s a broken system – that’s not a revolutionary thought, but I can tell you it is a broken system and it needs to be fixed.”

AB: How did you get involved in politics?

ES: I got involved with politics accidentally. When I was in college, I would intern on campaigns – the first campaign I worked on was Ted Strickland’s campaign in Marietta and now he’s the Governor – so I was involved politically in college, I was the president of our college Democrats, but my background is as a lawyer. My intent was to be a legal services lawyer, work on behalf of under served communities, people living with HIV/AIDS, people with benefit issues, that sort of thing. The way that my career worked out, however, I ended up in legislative law and worked in the civil rights and progressive community and started working in the gay rights community, as well. An opportunity arose at the DNC that I was approached about – I realized it was something that I had to absolutely pursue with everything I had. So, I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the director of LGBT outreach in the DNC in 2003 and overnight became a political operative.

AB: How long were you there?

ES: I was there from 2003 until the beginning of 2005.

AB: What do you make of this whole lawsuit that’s happening right now?

ES: It’s an unfortunate situation for everybody involved. I personally had an amazing experience at the DNC. It was a slightly different regime because there were different people running the DNC at that time, but I personally had a terrific experience. I think when I was there, the LGBT outreach program had more resources than any other LGBT outreach program in the history of a presidential election. What I don’t agree with is what happened after I left.

AB: What do you mean?

ES: It seems like my position was essentially merged into the overall political department. We one person who did LGBT politics and field organizing and one person who did LGBT fundraising. We were able to focus on doing our jobs without any sort of mixed motives. I believe that system should have stayed in place and it didn’t. I love Brian Bond – he’s a friend of mine, I do everything I can to support him, I believe in him, he’s doing a great job, but he’s got too much on his plate with the fundraising and the politics. That’s a job for two people, not one person. I hope he gets some help in this cycle. We need more people inside the DNC to ensure we continue to make progress in terms of incorporating the community into the party.

AB: Speaking of the party – you previously endorsed Edwards, but now that Edwards has backed out, you’re all about Barack Obama. One of the reasons, you told The Advocate, was that you felt Obama can get the delegates needed to win the nomination. When you had to step back and look at the candidates, was that your primary motivation – the strength of the party?

ES: This was not an easy decision for me, mostly because politics is personal. I talked extensively with senior staff from both the campaigns before I made my decision. Ultimately my decision was based on the candidates. There are some key similarities between Senator Edwards and Senator Obama that distinguish Senator Obama from Senator Clinton. I think that Senator Obama, like Senator Edwards, hasn’t taken any money from special interests. I worked in Washington for ten years and I can tell you personally that it’s a broken system – that’s not a revolutionary thought, but I can tell you it is a broken system and it needs to be fixed. Corporate interests have too big a seat at the table. One of the reasons why I endorsed Obama is because I believe the candidate whose campaign is essentially financed by people instead of corporations ensures that he’s directly accountable to the people, not the special corporate interest. I’m confident that Senator Obama knows to whom he’s directly accountable: the American people.

AB: And what else?

ES: The other thing that really drew me to Edwards was his position to the war. It was difficult for me sometimes when I was campaigning for him in places like Iowa to convince people that his opposition for war was severe, because he voted for it. Like Senator Clinton, he gave the president authority to begin this war. Obama has been against this war since the beginning and I think in terms of being able to win the general election against John McCain, when I watch the debates between Hillary and Obama and they were asked about the war, Obama’s position was explained in about a minute… Hillary gives a 20 minutes explanation that sounds just like John Kerry. When I was campaigning in Iowa for John Kerry, who I love and I thought would have made a great presdient, I also found it difficult to explain his position on the war and I think that’s a key reason why we lost. I think Hillary’s position on the war is too similar to John McCain’s.

AB: Okay.

ES: I think that Barack particularly is running a campaign that is based on the premise – just like John Edwards – that the American dream needs to be restored for all Americans, for everybody in this country and that is going to require an amount of sacrifice for Americans in order for us to restore the country to greatness, but Obama’s message clearly is creating so much enthusiasm among people who have never participated in the political process. I’ve never seen anything like this and it’s really inspirational. I was jealous as an Edwards supporter to see how inspired people were by Barack Obama and how he was able to clearly reach out and involve people in this campaign, whether they’re college students or people who have given up on the system. It’s really something and it’s not something to be discounted: the enthusiasm gap between supporters of Obama and supporters of Hillary.

AB: You’re right. This is the most enthusiastic people have probably have ever been for an American election. What worries me, however, is that this joy could turn toxic. I mean this particularly with regards to the Democratic party. People are getting so impassioned about race and gender and policy that I worry there are too many things – if Barack doesn’t get enough delegates, if the superdelegates come into play. What could this do to the Democratic party? Do you think there could be unintended consequences?

ES: Well, I think the media is playing out all kinds of scenarios right now. My concern is that the scenarios they’re playing out – and sometimes doing so sometimes in an alarmist way – is giving rise to conspiracy theories and that’s not good for anybody.

AB: What do you mean about conspiracy theories?

ES: Just theories about back room deals and about people being disenfranchised. There’s very extreme and dramatic language being thrown around and nothing’s really happened yet. The references being made to Florida in 2000 and 2004, I think that the media’s got a real responsibility here to make stay on the current state of the race as opposed to what may or may not happen months ahead.

Don't forget to share: