Bradley, Gore step up pursuit of gay voters

Calif. Outcome could prove crucial

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 11/12/99

OS ANGELES - During his 18 years in the Senate, Bill Bradley rarely mentioned gay and lesbian rights, and one of his last acts before retiring was to oppose gay leaders on a bill that would have recognized same-sex marriage.

But this year, the Democratic presidential candidate has emerged as one of the nation's most forthright proponents of equal rights for gays and lesbians, urging a step even many activists are wary of - reopening the 1964 Civil Rights Act to encompass gays.

Bradley's new emphasis led one leading gay-oriented magazine, The Advocate, to marvel that the former New Jersey senator has moved ''to the left'' of Representative Barney Frank, the openly gay Newton Democrat.

It has moved Vice President Al Gore, concerned about losing a constituency that could swing the election in some key states, to ratchet up his bid for gay support. Gore has vowed to loosen the administration's ''Don't Ask-Don't Tell'' policy on gays in the military and said last week that ''sexual orientation is a main topic for the expansion of freedom and human dignity.''

Nowhere is this unprecedented pursuit of the gay and lesbian vote more vividly on display than in California - and apparently for good political reason. On March 7, when Californians vote in a potentially decisive presidential primary, the ballot will include an initiative to ban marriage between gay partners. That is expected to spur one of the largest gay votes in US history, which in turn could affect who wins the primary and the nomination.

''The gay vote has become a central part of the Democratic coalition. It is an astonishing yardstick of how far the gay and lesbian issue has come,'' said David Mixner, a leading California gay activist who is supporting Gore. ''If there is a low Democratic turnout in March,'' Mixner said, ''the one group that will turn out en masse will be the gay and lesbian community.''

As a result, Gore and Bradley have made frequent trips to California to meet with gay leaders, dueling over the constituency in a way that was unimaginable to gay activists earlier this decade. Some Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, also are courting gays. On Monday, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, said he was ''unashamed'' to work with the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay and lesbian Republicans. But the Republicans generally aren't going nearly as far as Bradley and Gore.

By some estimates, gay voters account for 5 percent of the electorate. But the number may be in the higher single digits in some of the most important political states, including California and New York - both of which Democrats believe they must win next fall, especially if the Republican presidential candidate captures Texas and Florida.

While there has been no scientific survey of California gay voters, there is considerable evidence that Bradley has fast been making major inroads with gays and lesbians. Last June, Bradley spent several hours meeting with gay and lesbian activists in California. The event served as a wake-up call to Gore.

Then, last September, in a move that surprised even many of Bradley's gay backers, the former senator told The Advocate that Congress ''should add sexual orientation to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. '' That would clearly indicate, he said, that discrimination against gays is every bit as serious as discrimination against other protected groups.

The magazine contrasted Bradley's stance to that of many gay leaders, including Frank, who prefers a stand-alone antidiscrimination bill instead of reopening the landmark civil rights legislation.

''In one fell swoop, he came close to erasing seven years of hard work by Gore within the gay community,'' said Chris Bull, the Washington correspondent for The Advocate, who recently was granted interviews with both Bradley and Gore about their stance on gay issues. ''Bradley hadn't done particularly much. It was smart on Bradley's part.''

Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser said the former senator had ''no epiphany'' on gay rights but instead views it as a logical extension of his support for civil rights.

Still, the effect on gay voters of Bradley's stance has been powerful.

Bill Melamed, a West Hollywood personal agent who has been active in gay rights for 20 years, said that many gays and lesbians had presumed they would ''jump on the Gore bandwagon.'' Melamed contributed $1,000 to the Gore campaign. But as Bradley's views on gay issues gained publicity - and after Bradley called Melamed to seek his support - Melamed became convinced the former New Jersey senator was a more fervent believer in equal rights.

Next week, Melamed will come full circle: the former Gore contributor will be a cohost at a Hollywood fund-raiser for Bradley.

''It is not an issue Bradley chose to champion,'' Melamed said, referring to Bradley's days in the Senate. ''But the climate is very different in this country than six, 12, 18 years ago.''

Some observers, however, think that Bradley made a strategic mistake in calling for a reopening of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A number of civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, questioned Bradley's proposal, worrying that a Republican-controlled Congress might weaken the Civil Rights Act if it was reopened. Frank said in an interview that reopening the Civil Rights Act would be impracticable.

While the issue still is controversial, the public view of gay rights has shifted significantly during this decade. In 1992, a Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans deemed the gay lifestyle unacceptable, compared with 38 percent who called it acceptable. The same survey this year found a turnaround in views: those surveyed believe, 50-46, that the gay lifestyle is acceptable.

That has translated into unprecedented political power for gays and lesbians. In the 1988 campaign, many presidential candidates, including Gore, put little emphasis on the issue. In 1992, Clinton sought the gay vote but ran into criticism when he backed a ''Don't Ask-Don't Tell'' policy. Some conservatives felt the policy went too far in allowing gays to serve in the military, while gay activists complained that it didn't allow gays to openly state their sexual orientation.

Gore spent the years since trying to improve his relations with gays and took a major step in that direction earlier this year when he announced that he favored the legal protections for gay partners, such as the kind of health benefits that a married spouse can receive. Bradley also favors such benefits.

Some of the leading Republican candidates also are courting the gay community, but none of them embrace nearly as much of the gay rights agenda as the Democrats.

McCain has made the most determined overture, meeting on Monday with the Log Cabin Republicans, a group with 11,000 members. But a McCain aide said later the senator doesn't endorse key legislation favored by gay activists, such as a bill that would ban discrimination in employment.

Texas Governor George W. Bush, the GOP front-runner, has been criticized by some gay activists for not embracing a hate-crimes bill in his state that would specifically include protections for gays. Steve Forbes said recently that he would hire qualified gays as long as they aren't trying to make ''a political statement.'' GOP candidate Alan Keyes has had the harshest words for gays, saying that ''homosexuality is an abomination ... the comparison between race and homosexuality is absurd.''

In California, with its large gay community, the ballot question that would ban same-sex marriage is being closely watched by the campaigners. Bradley and Gore have said that while they do not support same-sex marriage, they would vote against the ballot initiative because it is divisive. That has prompted Rob Glazier, a Sacramento spokesman for the Campaign to Defend Marriage, which is pushing for passage of the ballot measure, to charge that Bradley and Gore are being hypocritical.

''Gore and Bradley are saying to the American people that they support the traditional definition of marriage being between a man and a woman, yet they both raise a lot of money from the gay community,'' Glazier said. ''They are trying to convince Americans they are mainstream. They shouldn't have it both ways.''

But to longtime gay activists such as Frank, the larger message of the Democratic primary is that the candidates are arguing about how to expand gay rights, not whether to limit them.

''My best hopes have been vindicated,'' Frank said, when asked about the effort by the Democratic candidates to win over gay voters. ''This is the first time in American history that people have been treating gays and lesbians as if they were any other legitimate group.''