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Dean Says Democrats Will Make Schiavo Case an Election Issue

Times Staff Writer

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Friday that his party would wield the Terri Schiavo case against Republicans in the 2006 and 2008 elections, but for now needed to stay focused battling President Bush on Social Security.

“We’re going to use Terri Schiavo later on,” Dean said of the brain-damaged Floridian who died last month after her feeding tube was removed amid a swarm of political controversy.

Dean, who has called congressional intervention in the Schiavo case “political grandstanding,” singled out House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) for his leading role in the matter.

“This is going to be an issue in 2006, and it’s going to be an issue in 2008,” Dean told about 200 people at a gay rights group’s breakfast in West Hollywood, “because we’re going to have an ad with a picture of Tom DeLay saying, ‘Do you want this guy to decide whether you die or not? Or is that going to be up to your loved ones?’ ”

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Dean, a practicing physician until he became governor of Vermont in 1991, added: “The issue is: Are we going to live in a theocracy where the highest powers tell us what to do? Or are we going to be allowed to consult our own high powers when we make very difficult decisions?”

Before Schiavo’s death, the Republican-controlled Congress passed legislation giving her parents the right to take action in federal court to have her feeding tube reinserted, but no judge intervened. Schiavo’s husband had fought for years to withdraw the tube, arguing that she would not have wanted her life extended.

Although Democrats voted for the measure, Dean said it provided an opportunity to showcase what he called Republican intrusiveness in the lives of Americans.

The former presidential candidate said he had purposely avoided emphasizing the Schiavo case in recent weeks because Democrats needed “message discipline.” In this case, he said, that means sticking to the fight against Bush’s push to allow private investment accounts for Social Security benefits.

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Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Dean’s “outrageous remarks help underscore why Dean is the leader of the minority party.”

“Terri Schiavo was never about partisan politicking, but instead about a woman’s life,” she said.

The legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Florida) resigned this month after acknowledging he had written a memo calling the Schiavo case “a great political issue” for Republicans.

In his breakfast speech, sponsored by Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality, Dean also took issue with fellow Democrats who had voted for proposed constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.

“What I really object to is Democrats who support the constitutional ban, because I think putting in constitutional discrimination in either the United States Constitution or individual state constitutions is wrong,” said Dean, who as governor of Vermont signed into law a measure authorizing same-sex civil unions.

During his campaign for the Democratic chairmanship in January, some of the unease among party operatives over his candidacy stemmed from concerns he would criticize its elected officials. Last year, 36 Democrats in the House and three Democrats in the Senate voted for a Republican-sponsored constitutional amendment to bar same-sex marriage. The measure did not pass.


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