By Lisa Keen
A group that aspires to reform the Democratic Party to appeal to a greater number of voters has chosen a new chairman who is best known to gay activists for having abandoned support for equal rights for gays in order to pursue higher office.
Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. is best known to the rest of the country for almost winning the U.S. Senate seat from Tennessee last November – a race closely watched not only because it was close but because the control of the Senate was teetering between Republicans and Democrats.
He was tapped this month to serve as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization closely associated with former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and others. The group’s mission, it says, is “modernizing progressive politics” in the United States. But its principles include such thoughts as “equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none.”
In an essay for the DLC’s website, Ford characterizes “gay marriage,” abortion, and gun control as “wedge issues” used by the Republicans as “divisive diversionary tactics to hide the appalling governing failures of the last six years.”
But some gay activists say Ford used same-sex marriage as a campaign tactic himself, vigorously touting his opposition to same-sex marriage and his support for an amendment to the state and U.S. constitutions to ban it.
It was a change from his first term in Congress, when his voting record merited a perfect 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign. That score dropped to 40 during his second term and to 25 during his last and final term. Twice, he voted for a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage (the proposal failed both times).
Jim Maynard, president of Memphis Stonewall Democrats, said that, while Ford had told gays in Memphis that he opposes same-sex marriage, he told them “he thought a constitutional amendment was unnecessary because of the ‘Defense of Marriage Act’,” which Ford also supported. But in September 2004, he “shocked” gay constituents in Tennessee when he voted for the proposed amendment to the federal constitution.
“It was a shock to gays and lesbians in Memphis, and needless to say, we were not happy with his anti-gay campaign,” said Maynard.
A columnist for the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper wrote last October that Ford “is telling anyone who will listen that he’s against gay marriage, a message tailored to win him votes east of his home base.”
On his Senate campaign website last year, Ford said, “I will continue to be pro-family, including supporting a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, without taking away the civil rights of gays and lesbians.”
Stonewall Democrats, a national gay Democratic organization, issued a press release last week expressing “deep concern” over the choice of Ford to lead the Democratic Leadership Council.
Stonewall Executive Director Joanne Wyrick said that Ford’s “willingness to lightly amend the U.S. Constitution and to exploit gay families for political gain should alarm Democrats across the country.”
David Mixner, a longtime gay Democratic activist who organized a significant fundraising effort for Bill Clinton’s election to office in 1992, said the Democratic Leadership Council, which both Hillary and Bill Clinton helped form, “has never been very good on LGBT issues.”
“Now, with the addition of Harold Ford,” wrote Mixner in a January 12 entry to his political blog davidmixner.com, “they will simply be worse.”
Mixner said Ford’s two votes for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage should be reason enough to “disqualify him from heading any organization associated with the leadership of the Democratic Party.” If the measure had passed, said Mixner, it would have “created a system of apartheid for the LGBT community codified in the United States Constitution.”
Mixner urged that “No one should contribute to the DLC or support it if Ford becomes its new chairman.” He noted Ford’s “aggressive” support last year for a ballot measure to amend the Tennessee constitution to ban same-sex marriage and legal recognition of other same-sex relationships.
“Ford campaigned saying he would be the first in line to vote for the Tennessee amendment,” noted Mixner. “The LGBT community and it allies should never forget his advocacy on behalf of these amendments. We also should not give a pass to straight friends who think these actions are no big deal.”