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June 9, 2006

Dean addresses Stonewall Democrats, but avoids marriage topic

Pittsburgh--Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean spoke to the National Stonewall Democrats convention on June 4, making him the first national party leader to address his party�s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender affiliate.

But the appearance followed a controversy over a number of incidents and issues perceived as insulting to LGBT Democrats, the most recent being his May 10 appearance on Pat Robertson�s 700 Club.

Dean first made LGBT history six years ago when, as governor of Vermont, he signed the law creating the nation�s first state-recognized civil unions. Lawmakers passed the measure after the state�s top court ruled they must remedy gay and lesbian marriage inequality. As a 2004 presidential candidate, Dean enjoyed the early and loyal support of LGBT Democrats, who also formed the base for his successful campaign for party chair.

Dean took the helm of the party, however, at a time when Republicans had used anti-gay ballot measures to rally their base in support of George W. Bush. Since then, Democrats have been trying to reach out to �values votes� and avoid being labeled too pro-gay, especially on marriage equality.

During his 700 Club appearance with Christian Broadcasting Network interviewer David Brody, Dean said, �The Democratic Party platform of 2004 says marriage is between a man and a woman. That�s what it says.�

The platform doesn�t say that. It calls for �full inclusion of gay and lesbian families,� and says that regulating marriage should be left to individual states.

After bloggers pointed out the error, Dean�s office issued mea culpa statements, emphasizing the second part of Dean�s CBN comment: �I think where we may take exception with some religious leaders is, that we believe in inclusion, that everyone deserves to live with dignity and respect, and that equal rights under the law are important.�

Still, LGBT activists accuse Dean--and the national party--of being overly eager to reach out to anti-gays.

Paul Yandura, a former Clinton administration official and long time gay Democratic activist, issued an open letter in April questioning Dean and the DNC�s commitment to defeating anti-gay ballot initiatives.

Gay DNC board member Garry Shay of California proposed amending the party�s affirmative action guidelines to require LGBT convention delegates, and to require that all state parties create plans to fill those slots as the do other minority constituencies.

That proposal has not moved due largely to objections within the DNC Black Caucus, which contends that passing it would lead to a drop in black support for Democrats.

Dean also abolished the office of LGBT outreach in April, along with the other constituency outreach offices. He replaced them with a think tank called the American Majority Project, which has been criticized for not serving the LGBT constituency.

Confidant that audience was with him

Dean didn�t address any of these issues or others with the conventioneers. Instead, he stuck to familiar Democratic themes and pointed out the anti-gay activity of the Republicans for the bulk of his 23-minute speech.

Unlike his 700 Club appearance, Dean took no questions.

�I want to start today by thanking you for standing with me,� Dean said. �Not just through the recent controversy over my CBN interview, but for standing with me as we have fought side by side for equal rights under the law for all Americans.�

Later, Dean answered an e-mailed question about his confidence that the people in that room stood with him on his CBN appearance.

�Stonewall Democrats has never doubted my commitment to the LGBT community and knew that my misstatement of the party platform was unintentional,� he wrote. �They were supportive of me and I appreciate that.�

�While many in the LGBT community were upset that I misstated the party platform,� Dean continued in his e-mail, �the fact is I acknowledged it and accepted responsibility.�

At the Pittsburgh convention, Dean said, �It is wrong to discriminate in housing. It is wrong to discriminate in health care. It�s wrong to discriminate in hospital visitations. It�s wrong to discriminate in hiring. It�s wrong for our tax code to be discriminatory. And it is wrong for any group of Americans to live in fear of hate crimes.�

�We believe that every taxpayer should have the same government services and benefits as any other American,� he continued.

�We have a fundamentally American belief that everyone who works hard and plays by the rules should be able to live with dignity and respect,� said Dean, �with equal protection under that law, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation.�

Marriage not included

However, Dean did not include marriage equality in that speech. In a later e-mail, he said, �The fact of the matter is that the American people are engaged in a national dialogue on how to best ensure LGBT partners and families equal protection under the law. That is an important discussion, and it must continue--if only because I think the American people are becoming more open to equality the longer we discuss it.�

�The American people understand that LGBT Americans are Americans first. They are our friends, our family members, our neighbors and co-workers, our fellow taxpayers, our soldiers,� wrote Dean.

Pressed repeatedly to explain how Dean believes LGBT families can have true equality of benefits and protections without marriage, Dean�s spokesperson Damien LaVera rejected the premise of the question and repeated that statement verbatim each time.

Dean also responded in writing to a question asking what the Democratic National Committee is doing to reverse the perception that Democrats have been reluctant to speak out aggressively for LGBT equality since the 2004 election.

He wrote, �The fact is the DNC has been consistent in fighting to promote equal rights for all Americans. That is why we are fighting efforts by Republicans like President Bush to scapegoat LGBT families and use marriage as [a] political wedge issue to distract from their failure to confront the real priorities of the American people.�

Dean kept mum

LaVera would not allow any other topic to be addressed by Dean after the convention. He objected to a few questions, said that answering another set would �tip the strategy to Republicans,� and said the DNC didn�t keep the data needed to answer others.

LaVera made it clear that he thought the topic of this report should be what the Republicans are doing to LGBT families instead.

Among the topics LaVera objected to were Dean�s plans to go on CBN again, the prognosis for Shay�s delegate affirmative action plan, and how LGBT people are better served by the American Majority Project than by the discontinued LGBT liaison.

During his speech, Dean also talked about having 190 campaign organizers throughout the country--four in Ohio--trained to talk to LGBT people about issues and trained to talk to non-LGBT people about LGBT issues.

LaVera would not discuss the content of that training or how its effectiveness is measured.

He also did not give any specifics backing up Dean�s claims that the DNC is actively fighting anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives, and objected to this reporter�s question about attempts to reach out to CBN�s anti-gay audience.

�Show me market research that the CBN viewers are the people behind the anti-gay initiatives, then I�ll answer the question,� LaVera said. �Bill Clinton got 30 percent of the evangelical Christian vote.�

LaVera took issue with Dean�s appearance being identified as on the 700 Club.

�It was CBN, not the 700 Club, and he didn�t appear with Pat Robertson,� said LaVera. But he agreed that the CBN News interview ran on the 700 Club.

Private meeting with Stonewall board

Cleveland Stonewall Democrats president Patrick Shepherd also serves on the National Stonewall Democrats board, and was part of a closed, hour-long meeting with Dean following his speech.

Shepherd said Dean addressed most of their concerns privately, and that plans will be rolled out �soon� by the Stonewall Democrats.

Shepherd said that he did not feel at liberty to discuss specifics before then, but he was confident that Dean is interested in progress.

Shepherd said the new plans were going to be carried out by Brian Bond, who directs the DNC�s Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council.

Bond�s office is located in the finance department of DNC, not the political or policy department.

That bothers Yandura, who says LGBT people need someone in the political department.

Yandura�s partner, Donald Hitchcock, was Bond�s predecessor, doing LGBT fundraising at the DNC. He fired by Dean on May 2 after Yandura wrote an open letter criticizing the DNC�s handling of LGBT matters, and urging donors to give instead to individual candidates and state organizations that are demonstrating support for LGBT people.

The DNC has denied any connection between the letter and the dismissal.

In presidential election years, LGBT-identified DNC contributions have reached $11 million.

�I hear Dean say he wants LGBT people to stand with him,� said Yandura after hearing Dean�s Pittsburgh speech.

�He says be out and proud. Well, I am out and proud,� said Yandura, �and I want to hear him say that the DNC will stand with us in the fight.�

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