PGN: President Obama has led his administration to undertake reforms that improve civil rights for LGBTs, including repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and not defending the Defense of Marriage Act. Can you tell me the specific efforts the DNC is embarking on to improve LGBT rights?
DWS: Sure. I’m very proud to represent this president and talk about his commitment to making sure that there is equal opportunity and recognition under the law for all Americans. This is another chapter in our civil-rights history. And the quest that we should all be making a priority and that president Obama has: of ensuring that we have equal treatment under the law for all Americans. So whether it’s ensuring hospital visitation rights for LGBT Americans and their partners or repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or refusing to continue to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court or ensuring the way we treat people’s foreign LGBT partners under immigration law is revised, that we make progress there. And all the way up to publicly declaring his support for marriage equality. President Obama has been committed throughout his presidency to try to make sure that no matter who you are, that the law is applied equally and that Americans are treated equally.
PGN: On the DNC website, it calls for “ensuring civil unions and equal federal rights for LGBT couples.” What does it mean to “ensure civil unions” and what is the DNC doing specifically around that?
DWS: The DNC is a national political party that reflects the values and the principles of not just of the president of the United States but of democratic activists. So we’re committed, and have been committed for many years, to the same principles that I just described. Making sure that there’s equal protection under the law. So we reach out to the LGBT community and continue to promote those values.
PGN: It’s a month and a half from the convention — can you talk to me about what way the party is leaning on the marriage issue? I know there has been talk that some folks want it to be an actual plank.
DWS: I expect marriage equality to be a plank in the national party platform. President Obama has declared his support for it ... Now, our platform committee process is a people-powered process. We have a platform committee and the platform is developed by our Democratic activists and the platform committee members, so they’ll go through a process. I hope that marriage equality, and expect that marriage equality, will be part of our platform.
PGN: What is the DNC doing to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act? It’s probably too late before the election. Is there any hope that there can be any movement on this between November and January?
DWS: No, because of the Republican-led Congress who has absolutely no interest in making sure that we have either a gender-inclusive ENDA or a non-gender-inclusive ENDA. Just like what we went through with the hate-crimes law, in order to make sure that we could pass an inclusive hate-crimes law — we had to go through the community — we had to go through an education process. There had to be more outreach. That’s what has been so incredible about the progress that we’ve made with LGBT rights is that, throughout my lifetime, I’ve seen an evolution of American thought and the way people think about LGBT Americans. Years ago, you would have looked at a proposal like the hate-crimes law or ENDA and have most people — I hate to use the word — recoil, but that’s the way it was not so long ago. But because we have been able to demonstrate that everybody deserves an opportunity to be treated humanely, that everybody deserves an opportunity to live where they want to, and be working where they’re qualified to work and have equal opportunity to acheive those goals and that your sexual orientation, or your race, or your gender, or whatever category you fall into as an American doesn’t and shouldn’t matter, certainly as the law applies. As more Americans have become educated about that, we’ve been able to pass a hate-crimes law that was inclusive. So we’ve been going through the same process with ENDA. I think really the last barrier to achieving ENDA is making sure that we have a Democratic majority in Congress so that we can send it to President Barack Obama for his signature. We have a Republican Congress that is so extreme. And Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate who has embraced that extremism and can’t run to the right far or fast enough. So sadly there isn’t any hope under [Speaker of the House] John Boehner and the Tea Party extremists in the House that any kind of ENDA would get through.
PGN: Pennsylvania passed a voter-ID law that could disenfranchise nearly a million voters, mostly elderly and low-income, and a Republican state representative specifically said the law would help defeat Barack Obama in November. What is the DNC doing to overturn this law and ensure voter access? Anything nationwide or specifically in Pennsylvania?
DWS: Our efforts in the face of the really horrific voter-suppression effort that’s gone on in at least 31 states at the DNC has been quite aggressive. In court, there are lawsuits that are trying to block those voter-suppression laws. At the DNC, we are full-steam ahead to make sure that we can enfranchise more people, that we can try to remove those obstacles and show voters how in spite of those obstacles being thrown in their way by Republicans, which transparently that state representative showed is so they can defeat Barack Obama and prevent our voters, who are most likely to go to the polls and vote for him and Democratic candidates, from getting to the polls, that we try to remove those obstacles and educate voters on how they can cast their ballot. For example, so many African-Americans don’t have a photo ID — 25 percent of African-Americans don’t have a photo ID. We’re working hard through our Voting Rights Institute at helping folks get IDs or helping to make sure that they can get registered under whatever the current law is in their state. We have a website that people can go to so that they can get their questions answered to what is going on in their state with voting rights. It’s called protectingthevote.org. And we’ve also deployed lawyers in battleground states like Pennsylvania who are working full-time so that we are not scurrying around at the last minute to solve their voting-rights problems. We have lawyers deployed now including in Pennsylvania to make sure that we can get people the assistance they need and put plans in place to get as many people to the polls as possible.
PGN: What is the DNC doing, if anything, to educate the Blue Dog Democrats on equality issues?
DWS: We do a lot. We really try to educate and talk to our members as well as our voters about the importance of making equality of opportunity and equal protection under the law a priority. But also just making sure that, like I said with the hate-crimes law, that we spend time helping the vast philosophical spectrum of our party understand that equality is important no matter what category you fall into. Our party continues to educate supporters across the spectrum about that. But you know what? I’m so proud of the LGBT community leadership for continuing, for really making that a priority. Because you know the Republicans and the extremists have done their best to make the LGBT issues, which are really the same issues that are important to every American, seem fringe and seem extreme. They want to make the LGBT community seem like an outlier, like an anomaly, like they deserve to be treated differently, and the Democrats, under President Obama’s leadership, have been able to make enough progress to where we are defeating those extremist views. We are able to put policies in place that cast aside those old injustices. I think LGBT civil rights is one of the civil-rights issues of our generation. It makes me very proud to be one of the party’s leaders helping to advance those goals.
PGN: DNC often targets races they want to focus on and fund. Will [openly lesbian U.S. Rep.] Tammy Baldwin’s Senate race be one of those?
DWS: Those are questions for the Democratic Senatorial campaign committee — those are the arms of the DNC — they focus on the Democratic races. But yes, Tammy Baldwin’s race, obviously. Tammy Baldwin is going to be the next U.S. senator from Wisconsin. There’s a knock-down drag-out primary on the other side and we’ll see what the results of that is, but I’ve worked with Tammy in the House of Representatives. I’m very proud of her as a woman and I’m proud that she’d be the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. I look forward to campaigning with her — I have already campaigned with her. I had her down in my district and was able to headline a fundraising event for her and look forward to campaigning with her the rest of the way.
PGN: And the state fights for marriage equality, e.g., Maryland, Maine, Washington — any specific focus on those?
DWS: We are publicly opposed to all of those that are trying to roll back LGBT rights and we will continue to oppose them. The president has publicly come out against those that would roll those back.