Angered by President Bush’s endorsement of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely the union of a man and a woman, gay conservatives are laying the groundwork for a campaign against the proposal in swing states, such as Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Ohio, that are critical to the president’s reelection.
Log Cabin Republicans, the largest GOP organization on gay issues, is exploring options from grass-roots voter mobilization efforts to television and radio ads -- all designed to convince fellow conservatives, as well as moderates and independents, that the White House is “playing politics” with the Constitution.
“A constitutional amendment is a call to arms for gay conservatives,” said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the group, which is planning its annual convention in Palm Springs in April. “A lot of gay conservatives who have been extraordinarily loyal will not remain silent. This is a breach.”
In the last few months, Guerriero has visited Missouri and Ohio to assess the political climate and talk to activists. In the last year he has traveled to 26 states and 87 cities to prepare for the largest presence ever of gay conservatives and their allies at the Republican National Convention, which will be in New York this year.
He said that since Bush’s announcement on Tuesday embracing the amendment proposed by Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave (R-Colo.), anger among gay conservatives was boiling over.
“The feeling is, if you want a cultural war, you’ll get it,” he said Wednesday in an interview. “We don’t want history to record that we stood silent when our president and our party tried to write discrimination into the U.S. Constitution.”
Some gay conservatives who work in the Bush administration or who hold political office say they feel a special sense of betrayal, and they share a conviction that the White House has miscalculated the political fallout.
Recalling the 2000 campaign, when Bush met with gay activists and vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney -- who has an openly lesbian daughter -- talked of leaving this issue to the states, some gay Republicans are vowing to vote Democratic for the first time, while others are pledging to stay in the party and fight.
For the White House, the issue of same-sex marriage is a dicey political issue, pitting key constituencies -- evangelical Christians and social conservatives -- against an activist group of gay Republicans and their allies among Libertarians and moderate Republicans. In exit polls from the 2000 election, about 4 million Americans identified themselves as gay or lesbian; of those, about a quarter said they voted for Bush. Gay Republicans say, however, that it is not only their support Bush is risking, but that of their families and friends and like-minded conservatives.
“The day word came out that he was going to support a constitutional amendment, my phone was ringing off the hook, with straight Republican friends saying, ‘He just lost my vote,’ ” said Rebecca Maestri, a lesbian activist who works on Iraqi redevelopment issues for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
David Catania, a Republican at-large member of the Washington, D.C., City Council, said he believed the administration had “grossly miscalculated this issue in terms of the electoral landscape.” Catania, who has raised more than $50,000 for the president’s reelection, said he was so livid that he stopped soliciting contributions for the campaign and would not vote for Bush.
“I’m a vested Republican and my stomach is turning,” said Catania, who has won citywide election three times as a Republican in the predominantly Democratic city. “To say I feel betrayed is an understatement.”
Until now, many gay Republicans had expressed satisfaction with Bush’s performance. On taking office in 2001, Bush did not rescind several executive orders issued by President Clinton -- including one that bars employment discrimination against gays and lesbians in the federal government -- despite pressure from social conservatives. He appointed gays and lesbians to several prominent and many mid-level positions in his administration, including career diplomat Michael Guest as ambassador to Romania. And he talked of “compassionate conservatism” -- which included a more tolerant approach to gay issues, including increased funding for AIDS research.
“Bush has been a good president for gays and lesbians,” said Robert Kabel, a lawyer and a gay activist. He cites the story of Bush, at a fundraiser in 2002 for then-Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), telling him that he hoped to “take the heartburn out of your issue.”
But since the Supreme Court overturned a Texas sodomy law in November, evangelical Christians have been pressing the administration to intervene. In his State of the Union address in January, Bush vowed to “defend the sanctity of marriage” against judges who “insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people.”
That speech was the final straw for Carl Schmid, a Washington consultant who in 2000 helped Bush beat back a strong primary challenge by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) among gay voters.
“I will vote for him, but I cannot vocally support him,” said Schmid, who said he told Bush-Cheney ’04 Campaign Chairman Marc Racicot earlier this month that the White House was going to be on “the wrong side of history. America has changed. I don’t know why he’s so beholden to a minority.”
The perception that the Republican Party is being hijacked by social conservatives dates to the 1992 GOP convention, when candidate Patrick J. Buchanan gave a firebrand speech in which he accused Democratic candidate Bill Clinton of having “a different agenda” that included unrestricted abortion, women in combat and gay rights.
In Bush’s endorsement of the marriage amendment, said the Log Cabin’s Guerriero, “there are echoes of Pat Buchanan’s call for a cultural war in 1992 that led to the defeat of the first President Bush. This is no way to launch a reelection campaign.”
Unlike 1992, gay activists now feel they have political clout to back up their disaffection. Although polls have been inconsistent, perhaps because Americans are reluctant to disclose their feelings on the issue, the latest Los Angeles Times Poll found that 32% of Californians believe that same-sex marriages should be allowed.
Part of the lament for many gay and lesbian conservatives is that they support Bush on most policy issues. “Most of us are Republicans for economic and ideological reasons,” said Steve Gunderson, a former congressman from Wisconsin who now heads the Washington office of the Greystone Group, a communications and consulting firm. “What the president failed to do is recognize that there is real discrimination and real problems for those of us in long-term relationships.”
For Mike Ferens, a former president of the local Log Cabin Republicans chapter, Bush’s endorsement of the amendment hit hard.
“I am shocked by it,” said Ferens, a private contractor who works for the Department of Homeland Security.
Because of it, he said, he would likely vote Democratic this year for the first time in 20 years.
“The president has forgotten one of the ideals of the founders: the separation of church and state. It’s not only discriminating, it’s insulting,” he said.
Mark Sibley, a financial consultant for the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, took a more pragmatic approach.
Sympathetic to the “political reality” facing Bush, and the long odds against a constitutional amendment being enacted by the mandatory two-thirds votes in both houses of Congress and by three-fourths of the states, Sibley spoke for many straight Republicans when he said: “If I’m upset with the president, it’s over deficits. I’d like to see him use his veto pen on some of that pork.”