Gay activists see uproar after debate as positive

Kerry's debate mention of Cheney's daughter draws varied reaction

Election 2004

October 16, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon and Patricia Meisol | Stephanie Desmon and Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

James Packard listens to the hoopla surrounding Sen. John Kerry's mention of Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter in this week's presidential debate and sees headway, not political dirty tricks.

"Look at the progress we [have] made," said the Rockville real estate developer, who married his partner, Erwin Gomez, in San Francisco when it was legal for a time in February. "Ten or 20 years ago, you couldn't even say the word gay. In high school in my time, kids committed suicide if they were gay because they didn't know how to address it."

Since the third and final presidential debate this week, the discussion has turned to whether Kerry should have invoked the name of Cheney's adult daughter, Mary, whom Cheney has been known to talk about on the campaign trail.

Lynne Cheney, Mary's mother and the vice president's wife, gave an impassioned speech denouncing Kerry - and his character - for mentioning her daughter. Her husband later joined in her rebuke.

Political observers say the firestorm ignited by Kerry's remark also brings to the fore the question of the place of family members in politics.

"A lot of things that happen during a campaign that are questionable ethically and they run the gamut from things that are obviously unethical to those that are shades of gray, more questionable or iffy," said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and the co-editor of Shades of Gray, a book on campaign ethics.

"A lot of times when personal family issues get involved, most people say you shouldn't go there, that that's the line that is crossed."

The question from debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News was about whether homosexuality is a choice.

"We're all God's children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as," Kerry answered.

The response was fast and furious. "This is not a good man," Cheney's wife, Lynne, said at a late-night rally after the debate. "Speaking as a mom and a pretty indignant mom," she called Kerry's remark "a cheap and tawdry political trick."

It wasn't over. Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards, told a radio audience the next day that Cheney "overreacted" and "treated it as if it's shameful to have this discussion. I think that's a very sad state of affairs."

Many Kerry supporters said he didn't have to mention Mary Cheney to make his point, but others argued that he did it as a not-so-subtle reminder to some in the Republicans' conservative base that Cheney has a daughter whose lifestyle they would likely object to.

Other Bush-Cheney supporters say Kerry was probably trying to underscore the different positions the president and vice president have on the question of gay marriage, which polls show is one that resonates with many conservative Christians.

Bush supports a federal amendment banning gay marriage; Cheney has said he wants to leave it up to the states.

"I've been disappointed in the vice president's position, so I didn't need John Kerry to remind me," said Mat Staver, an Orlando-based attorney and evangelical who has fought gay marriage in the courts.

Besides, he said, the alternative of voting for the Democrats "to me is unthinkable."

Jason Poling, pastor of New Hope Community Church in Owings Mills, said he thought the tactic was a "low blow" that could embolden evangelicals. "If it was a political calculation, it boomeranged," he said.

Many gay leaders say they are angry instead at the Bush campaign and its surrogates for keeping the issue alive by attacking Kerry for bringing Mary Cheney into the fray, when the Republicans have spent the past year attacking gay Americans by seeking a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage.

At the same time, many say they are pleased that the issue is on the lips of so many, marking another milestone toward more equal treatment.

"He is using us as political pawns," Christopher Barron, political director for the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican group, said of Bush, whom his group is not endorsing despite having done so four years ago.

"He promised to be a uniter, not a divider, in 2000. He promised to be a compassionate conservative. He has had very little to do with uniting this country.

The complaints over the comment have been loudest from the Republicans. But keeping this conversation in the political discourse might not be in their best interest, with so few days left in this campaign.

"It is at best a sideshow," said William A. Galston, interim dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. "It's not what I'd want to spend the last two weeks of the campaign on."

John Marble, communications director for the Stonewall Democrats, an organization of gay Democrats, said he is encouraged by the dialogue. He sees it as perhaps another milestone toward his goal of equal treatment for all Americans.

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