Friend or Family?

Article excerpt

Voters in Vermont are faced with a Senate race between an openly gay Democrat and a pro-gay Republican

At first glance the U.S. Senate race in Vermont might seem like a no-brainer for gay and lesbian voters. After all, Democrat Ed Flanagan, Vermont's longtime state auditor, is running as an openly gay candidate. On September 12, after a hard-fought primary battle, he became the first openly gay person to be selected as a U.S. Senate nominee by either major political party. On the heels of legalizing civil unions between gay and lesbian couples earlier this year, Vermont has the chance to make history again November 7 by electing the nation's first out gay senator.

But it's not that simple. Flanagan is challenging Republican incumbent James Jeffords, whom many gay activists credit with being one of the few GOP senators willing to work on behalf of causes important to gay men and lesbians.

"We are in a very difficult spot," says Timothy J. Palmer, executive director of Vermont CARES, an AIDS health care service, adding that the race is a constant topic of discussion. "I think every gay and lesbian in the state wishes it were a clearer choice."

Palmer says he probably will not make an endorsement in the race. Although he's excited by the prospect of having an openly gay senator, he says he also has to be loyal to Jeffords, who played a key role in the reauthorization of the Ryan White Act, which provides funding for AIDS groups such as Vermont CARES.

The dilemma is not lost on gay political groups in Washington, D.C., either. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign, whose endorsements many gay voters rely on, is playing both sides of the fence in the Vermont race. HRC announced a dual endorsement September 19--donating $5,000 to both the Flanagan and the Jeffords campaigns. HRC officials say they are committed to helping openly gay people such as Flanagan get elected but that they also feel an obligation to assist supportive non-gay politicians such as Jeffords.

"What we're saying here is that supporting our issues can get you an endorsement from HRC," says Winnie Stachelberg, the group's political director. "Jeffords has a 96% [approval rating] with HRC. It's by far the best record of any Republican in the House or Senate." She also notes that Jeffords is the lead sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (a bill that would outlaw sexual orientation-based discrimination in the workplace) and was an outspoken supporter of hate-crimes legislation, which passed the Senate in June.

Stachelberg says HRC makes a point of being nonpartisan. In fact, the group opened itself up to intense criticism from New York voters in 1998 when it endorsed incumbent Republican U.S. senator Alfonse D'Amato over his challenger, Democratic congressman Charles Schumer, who went on to win the race. At the time, HRC officials said the organization owed its loyalty to D'Amato for his supportive stance on gay issues. Critics argued that D Amato's advocacy for gay rights was a fairly recent phenomenon compared with Schumer's.

"There are those out there who think we should never support Republicans," Stachelberg says. …