Hillary Up Close & Personal

Article excerpt

In an exclusive interview, the first lady and Senate candidate talk in-depth of the first time about gay issues and lesbian friends

Even by New York's colorful standards, this year's U.S. Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Rick Lazio has been one for the books. No first lady had ever run for public office before Clinton entered the race for retiring senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's seat. Her presumed Republican opponent, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, suddenly dropped out of the race this spring after announcing in close order that he had prostate cancer, was separating from his wife, and was seeing another woman. His last-minute replacement, Lazio, was little known outside his Long Island district but was soon able to tap into a sizable anti-Bill and Hillary donor base.

For gays and lesbians, the Clinton-Lazio race has turned out to be--after the presidential campaign--the most-watched election battle of the fall. Clinton has been embraced wholeheartedly by many gay and lesbian New Yorkers, a love affair made evident by her appearance at June's gay pride parade in New York City. She upstaged Lazio simply by showing up: Lazio spent that day at a dairy farm upstate.

Still, despite the support she enjoys from many gays and lesbians, Clinton has never spoken in-depth about gay issues--until now. In mid September the first lady agreed to sit down with The Advocate and discuss her positions on gay issues from marriage to military service as well as her experiences with gay friends. (Officials at Lazio's campaign expressed interest in having their candidate interviewed by The Advocate but then stopped returning phone calls.)

Clinton was interviewed in an upper east side high-rise on a muggy Manhattan afternoon just prior to a private, high-roller fundraiser. Because her husband, the president, decided he wanted to attend the event, a full complement of police, Secret Service officers, and special security details swarmed in and around the building. There, high on the 45th floor overlooking the East River, the Senate hopeful was ensconced in an office down a small hallway jammed with large men wearing earphones. She was dressed in a conservative black suit and pearls.

Despite the whirlwind around her, the first lady seemed calm, focused, even serene as she answered questions about gay and lesbian issues, something she can address with remarkable fluency and eloquence. She was generous with her time; she even kept the president waiting upstairs so she could complete the interview. Her campaign literature shows her to be squarely behind antidiscrimination and hatecrimes measures, AIDS funding, domestic partnerships, gays in the military, and granting immigration rights to foreign gay partners of U.S. citizens.

But there were a few disappointing moments during the interview too. Clinton could not point to a single gay-related topic other than AIDS that she had addressed as first lady. And she would not let herself be pinned down when it came to public funding for the Boy Scouts or voting for judges who had antigay rulings in their histories.

Finally Clinton, who opposes gay marriage, said she did support the recent controversial ruling in Vermont that provides sweeping legal benefits to gay couples. Clinton would like to see a similar law in New York, saying she considered it a top priority for gays and lesbians.

How has it been campaigning in New York? Is it what you expected?

It's been great. I've had a wonderful time traveling around the state, meeting people, enjoying the diversity of New York, which has an extraordinary range of people and landscapes and challenges, all of which I find exciting. It has also been a learning experience for me because I have never been a candidate before.

Do you feel like a New Yorker yet, or are you still becoming one?

Well, I feel very much at home. As someone was telling me the other day, it's like the convert in the congregation who becomes the most zealous or the adopted child who wants very much to be loved. …