Obama’s Gay Backers

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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.