By Lisa Keen
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. –
“Be honest!” called out a voice to John Edwards as he tackled a question about what he himself described as “the single hardest social issue for me personally.”
The issue was whether gay couples should have the same right as heterosexual couples to obtain marriage licenses and all the benefits thereof. The question was where he stands.
It was his first stop in New Hampshire since officially announcing his campaign to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. And it was the fifth person to stand up in the audience of a jam-packed town forum Dec. 29 in an elementary school cafeteria in Portsmouth.
The questioner was from Cambridge, Mass. – Mark Forrest, an openly gay man who describes himself as a “political junkie.”
Given the “very divisive” nature of the issue of same-sex marriage and the enormous amount of attention that it has been getting since Massachusetts approved equal marriage rights for gay couples, Forrest said, “what can you tell your gay supporters about your view, in the civil rights sense?”
“This is the single hardest social issue for me personally,” said Edwards, emphasizing that he was talking about finding his personal position on the issue, not his public position.
Edwards said, “in a right and fair and just” government, he believes gay people “should be treated with dignity and respect” and that “civil unions provide a level of dignity and respect for gay people.” He said he wonders whether civil unions can provide the necessary dignity and respect or whether “we have to cross the bridge into gay marriage.”
“I personally feel great conflict about that,” said Edwards. “I don’t know the answer. I wish I did. I think, from my perspective, it’s easy for me to say civil unions yes, partner benefits yes, but it is something I struggle with…but it’s a jump for me to get to gay marriage.”
At that point, someone booed loudly at the back of the packed room -a boo he later claimed not to hear. He repeated, again, that the issue is one he has an “internal struggle with,” adding, “I wish I had the right answer.”
It is hard to imagine that, in a presidential campaign, the “right answer” is as easy as “Be honest.”
“I realize that, for people in the position that he’s in,” said Forrest after the forum, “that it’s a very hot potato. I didn’t expect him to jump over the line and embrace gay civil marriage.” Forrest said he was also heartened that Edwards “did not try to bamboozle” the issue by saying something like ‘it’s an issue each state should decide for itself.’ But, he added, “it’s hard to believe that people in their heart of hearts can’t make the jump from civil unions to civil marriage.”
In the 2004 presidential campaign, when Edwards ran as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee to presidential nominee John Edwards, an interviewer accused him of trying to have it “both ways” by saying he both opposed same-sex marriage but opposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
That assessment might still be apt, though there is one noticeable change -at least so far. He no longer states that he is opposed to same-sex marriage.
In an interview on ABC-TV’s “This Week” newsmagazine following the stop in Portsmouth, George Stephanopoulos asked Edwards to explain why his comment that gay marriage was the single hardest social issue for him personally.
“Because I’m 53 years old, and I grew up in small town in the rural south, I was raised in the Southern Baptist church, and so I have a belief system that arises from that,” said Edwards. “It’s part of who I am. I can’t make it disappear….I’m just not there yet.”
Stephanopoulos asked Edwards’ wife Elizabeth how she felt about the issue. She said that, perhaps because she comes from “a more eclectic background” than her husband, the issue is “less problematic for me.”
Edwards then repeated a comment he made at the end of his remarks in Portsmouth, in which his 24-year-old daughter Cate, who he said is in school in Cambridge, told him that people of her generation “believe this issue will completely disappear with their generation.”
“She may be right,” he finished.
Edwards is the third Democrat to announce his candidacy thus far for the 2008 presidential election. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio have also announced. And many other candidates are in various stages of preparing to announce their candidacy.
In New Hampshire, the several openly gay people in attendance who spoke with this reporter indicated they supported Edwards in his 2004 run with Kerry but that they are surveying the field now to see who to support.
Forrest said he is in the early stages of examining the field of candidates, including U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are capturing the lion’s share of media attention even though neither has gone the first step of forming an official “exploratory committee.”
Holly Pirtie, a teacher in Durham, New Hampshire, says she’s focusing on Edwards, Clinton, and Obama but that she feels “a sense of safety” with Edwards. She believes his stated opposition to same-sex marriage in 2004 was a required position as the second man on the ticket.
His record in the U.S. Senate, representing North Carolina, earned him a 100-percent score with the Human Rights Campaign for his voting record in the 107th Congress. During his last two years in the Senate, he co-sponsored a bill to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and one to expand the federal hate crime penalties. And he adopted a policy of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation in his own Senate office.
During the 2004 campaign, he also expressed support for non-discrimination policies based on gender identity, lifting the ban on gays in the military, and allowing gays to adopt, and then and now, he has opposed a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.