In an interview with PGN last week, DNC chair Tim Kaine acknowledged that some members of the LGBT community are frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress on key legislative issues, but pledged that change will keep coming — if Democrats can retain their seats.
“The Democratic Party — from our platform, from who we are, who our elected officials are, our leadership — works to be very, very inclusive of the LGBT community,” Kaine said. “Not that we don’t have challenges and arguments and questions of if we’re doing enough — we have that with all of our constituencies — but we work hard to be inclusive in our leadership and our policies. The Republican Party is still choosing to make LGBT issues their wedge device to motivate their base.”
Locally, Kaine noted that the Senate race between Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey could be significant for LGBT Pennsylvanians.
“Joe Sestak has a good record on issues of LGBT equality, but Toomey doesn’t even believe in the hate-crimes notion, which is a rearview-mirror issue for most people,” he said. “[Toomey] thinks hate crimes are criminalizing thought. We see hate crimes all too often; even the bullying case that claimed the life of the student at Rutgers can be looked at in the category of a hate crime. It’s not about thoughts, it’s about actions that you take to marginalize others. There’s a very clear distinction between Sestak and Toomey and that’s not an unusual contrast that just exemplifies the current difference between the two parties in our sensitivity to and appreciation of LGBT Americans.”
Kaine, who’s headed the DNC since January 2009, said that, despite public criticism from some LGBT activists, the Obama administration has acquired an important list of LGBT accomplishments.
Last fall, the president signed the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act into law — incorporating sexual orientation and gender identity into the federal hate-crimes law — and Kaine noted that there have also been “significant wholesale changes in federal personnel rules for LGBT Americans,” such as the extension of some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees.
Kaine said the Obama administration early on committed itself to four main LGBT legislative measures: the hate-crimes law, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.
“The White House has developed a huge list of things, from big-picture legislation to administrative things and has been going through and ticking off a number of them. The legislative priority has been the Shepard Act, ‘DADT,’ ENDA and DOMA, in that order,” Kaine said. “Some of that order came down to practical politics in the sense of which ones would have less political crosswind to pass and then just climbing the ladder from there.”
The Senate last month failed to advance the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but Kaine said he expects action on the measure in the lame-duck session of Congress.
“They’re still strategizing about whether the best legislative vehicle is as a stand-alone or if this should be attached to something like the Defense Authorization bill,” he said. “We can’t get rid of ‘DADT’ by an executive order, we can’t tie it up in the courts for years. We need to get rid of it legislatively to get rid of it once and for all, and that’s what the president is focused on.”
Once “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed, Kaine said he expects Democratic leadership to turn its attention to ENDA, although he was unsure of a timeline.
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice filed an appeal to stay an injunction ordered by a judge in California that would have immediately lifted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The DOJ also recently appealed two decisions in Massachusetts that found part of DOMA to be unconstitutional.
Kaine said the appeals, however, do not preclude the administration’s support for repealing both laws.
“It’s a tough one. The Justice Department is under legal obligation to defend laws of the United States. We had Congress pass a lot of civil-rights laws, especially during the civil-rights era, and there were state courts and lower courts ignoring them, but it was important for the Justice Department to go into places like Mississippi or Arkansas and defend the law of the United States. We have a president who believes it’s important for the Justice Department to continue that very traditional role, but he also believes very strongly that there is a right solution to these issues and that’s getting legislation passed.”
Kaine said the frustration expressed by LGBT community members about the stalled effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the DOJ appeals is common among many constituent groups but should not prevent Democratic voters from continuing to support their party.
“I don’t mind impatience. I think impatience can be a driver. And whether it’s the LGBT community, labor, environmental issues — we run into similar questions when we’ve gotten a lot done but there’s still a lot more to do. And the president is more impatient than anybody. There’s not a single area where the president says, ‘OK, I’m checking this off my list because we’ve gotten done everything we need to.’ He’s proud of our accomplishments across the board but in every area there’s a to-do list, and the ability to get that to-do list done depends on the quality of his partners,” Kaine said. “If folks are choosing to not participate until we have more action, if you don’t pick your own leader, somebody else is going to pick for you. Why let your enemy pick your leader? You need to pick your leaders, pick those who are most likely to support you, hold them accountable and push them but don’t allow your enemies to pick for you because you’re not engaged.”
Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.