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Ohio senator was a defender of LGBT equal rights
Cleveland--Few American elected officials have had their character shaped by the Great Depression to the extent of Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum, who died March 12 at the age of 90 in Fort Lauderdale.
With his formative years forged by the economic hardship his family faced in Cleveland and his commitment to the Jewish concept of tikun olam--repairing the world--Metzenbaum was guided by the belief that government was obligated to provide an economic safety net, guarantee civil rights and the promise of equal opportunity.
Gays, lesbians, and people with AIDS benefited from Metzenbaum’s sense of fairness and his tenacity in the legislative arena.
Metzenbaum, who was also known for his business prowess, was one of the wealthiest members of the Senate. His investments included purchasing land near Cleveland Hopkins airport to build the world’s first enclosed parking garage. That venture grew to become APCOA, the nation’s largest parking lot operator.
Metzenbaum also founded the rental car company that became Avis and co-owned the Sun Newspaper chain that serves Cleveland’s suburbs.
Prior to public office, Metzenbaum worked his way through Ohio State University law school and started a practice representing labor unions. The Communication Workers of America and the International Association of Machinists were among his biggest clients.
Metzenbaum was elected to the Ohio House in 1942 and served through 1946 when he was elected to the Ohio Senate, serving there until 1950.
After managing two successful senate campaigns for friend Stephen Young, Metzenbaum ran for the seat himself. After two defeats, he was appointed in 1973 by Governor John Gilligan to fill the unexpired term of William Saxbe, who became the U.S. Attorney General.
In the 1940s discrimination against Jews was prevalent. In Metzenbaum’s case, his religion kept the young lawyer out of major law firms. He responded by trading services for office space in small firms and preparing tax returns for $1.
Metzenbaum became the first Jewish member of the U.S. Senate, where he also occasionally felt discrimination.
In 1981, Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina called Metzenbaum “the senator from B’nai Brith,” an anti-Jewish slur. Hollings later apologized. He was also accused of having “Communist sympathies.”
Rep. Louis Stokes, a civil rights leader in the House served with Metzenbaum. Both lawmakers lived in Shaker Heights and they were friends before they were elected.
“Senator Howard Metzenbaum was one of the giants of the U.S. Senate,” said Stokes.
“I had great admiration and respect for him,” Stokes said, adding that the legislative records of the two Ohio Democrats were almost identical.
Stokes said he and Metzenbaum also shared aspects of pioneering in Congress--Stokes as an African-American and one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Metzenbaum as the Senate’s first Jewish member.
“[Metzenbaum] was always a civil rights fighter,” said Stokes, “and let’s not forget that he took action to break down barriers at private clubs that banned Jews, blacks and women.”
“Gay and lesbian rights were an issue of the time,” Stokes said.
“If you were for civil and constitutional rights, you had to be consistent and include gay rights,” Stokes said.
Metzenbaum mastered the rules of the Senate and was known for devising creative ways to block legislation he did not want. One such tactic was offering hundreds of amendments to a single bill and demanding voice votes on all of them. These efforts earned him the nickname “Senator No.”
As a powerful member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Metzenbaum was fierce in oversight hearings, and in opposition to Reagan appointees, many of them anti-gay.
Metzenbaum led the Senate to pass progressive labor laws, consumer protection laws, food labeling laws, and anti-trust laws.
He campaigned in Ohio on what he called “pocketbook” issues, rarely bringing up social issues.
However, while in Washington, he was a staunch supporter of reproductive rights, protection from discrimination, civil rights in general, and gay and lesbian rights.
During Metzenbaum’s Senate tenure, being pro-gay often meant opposing anti-gay initiatives, many of them put forward by North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms. Metzenbaum, often partnered with Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, did that.
Metzenbaum and Kennedy successfully led their colleagues in opposition to Helms’ efforts to demand enforcement of state sodomy laws, and to ban National Endowment for the Arts funding of homoerotic art.
Metzenbaum worked to preserve non-discrimination measures in Washington, D.C. that protect gays and lesbians and voted to allow the city to pass its domestic partner ordinance.
Metzenbaum led the opposition to Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was considered to be the pro-gay position. He supported Joycelyn Elders as President Clinton’s first surgeon general, and the confirmation of Roberta Achtenberg to the post of assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Achtenberg was the first openly gay or lesbian nominee ever confirmed by the Senate.
The 1993 battle over gays serving openly in the military provided another opportunity for the senator.
Though he ultimately lost the fight, Metzenbaum fiercely fought fellow Ohio Democrat John Glenn, Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sam Nunn, also a Democrat, and Republican John Warner of Virginia, among others, to allow gays and lesbians to serve in the military openly.
Metzenbaum questioned the controversial hearings the committee held that did little more than gin up homophobia.
“Let us consider the argument that homosexuals in the military will adversely affect morale and unit cohesion,” Metzenbaum said in May 1993, debating Warner. “Is it limited to the emotional arguments we keep hearing from the troops that they do not want to serve with homosexuals? I think it is.”
That same year, Metzenbaum supported an amendment by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein to protect gays and lesbians from hate crime.
Metzenbaum was a co-sponsor of the gay and lesbian civil rights bill in 1991. That legislation was an attempt to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include gay and lesbian people as a protected class for employment, housing, and public accommodations. The measure was a broader forerunner to the current Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
During the Reagan and first Bush administrations, Metzenbaum worked to beat back attempts to marginalize AIDS prevention and was an early supporter of funds to care for people with the relatively new disease.
It was in this area that Metzenbaum fought Helms’ attempts to remove people with AIDS from food service jobs, criminalize blood and tissue donations from someone found to be infected, and to defund the National Institutes of Health AIDS research.
Metzenbaum fought the 1993 ban on HIV-positive entry to the U.S. that is currently under fire, and co-sponsored a 1998 bill to put federal resources into getting AIDS orphans adopted.
Metzenbaum gave the keynote address to the 1994 Dayton Lesbian and Gay Pride Dinner commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
At the time, dinner organizer Michael Hawk told the Dayton Daily News, “He is a politician that never sold out. His unwavering support for the rights of people, regardless of who those people are--women seeking abortions or workers seeking safer work places, Sen. Metzenbaum is always there. He is a real leader and willing to introduce difficult legislation.”
Metzenbaum’s record was not perfect, however. The senator supported a 1991 Helms measure to fine and imprison health care providers with HIV who perform invasive procedures without notifying patients of their status. Of the six years the Human Rights Campaign Fund scored legislators while Metzenbaum was there, this was his only miss.
Upon Senate retirement in 1994, Metzenbaum became the board chair of the Consumer Federation of America, an organization founded by Ralph Nader to advocate for consumer protections. He was also a fellow at Brandeis University.
The federal courthouse in Cleveland was named in Metzenbaum’s honor in 2005.
Metzenbaum is survived by widow Shirley and four daughters and their families.
Upon retirement, his Senate colleagues dubbed Metzenbaum the “last angry liberal.”