By Bob Roehr
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Human Rights Campaign quietly endorsed Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel in the US Senate race in Pennsylvania on Aug. 3. In making the endorsement it snubbed one of its strongest Republican supporters, Sen. Arlen Specter.
Partisan and nonpartisan observers alike were surprised by the action and questioned its wisdom.
Mike Mings, HRC’s deputy director of electoral activities and PAC manager, said, “It boils down to the Federal Marriage Amendment.”
Mings manages HRC’s political action committee. Last October the PAC board approved a litmus test on endorsements based on the FMA.
HRC told Senators that they considered the July procedural vote on cloture on the FMA to be a vote on the substance of the amendment. Specter has said that he opposes the substance of the FMA and would vote against the amendment itself, but he supported the Republican leadership on the procedural vote.
Hoeffel is a three-term congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs who has a 100% rating with HRC, but because of his limited seniority and the committees on which he serves, has not played a leadership role on LGBT or AIDS issues. “We have a great friend in Joe Hoeffel and we are happy to be supporting him,” Mings said.
When asked if the same thing could be said of Specter, Mings replied, “Yes.”
The polls have shown Specter with support from a bare majority of the voters in a two-man race with Hoeffel; but the challenger is about 15 points behind, with the balance undecided. That hasn’t changed in months. Furthermore, Specter has a more than 2 to 1 advantage in cash on hand in his campaign war chest.
Terje Anderson, executive director of the National Association of People With AIDS, said Specter has always been very much a friend of the AIDS community. “In his role on the Appropriations Committee, he doesn’t always take our number and advocate for them but he has played a key role in many of the funding increases, particularly at NIH.”
NAPWA does not make endorsements in political races.
David Greer called HRC’s endorsement an incredible slap in the face to Specter and to the process. He is a past president of Log Cabin Republicans in Pennsylvania and has served on an HRC advisory committee. “You can’t deny that Specter has been a good friend of the community,” he said.
“This seems to fly in the face of HRC’s past criteria that they will endorse incumbents who have a good record over challengers. Another part of their endorsement criteria is viability. All of the polls that I’ve seen show Hoeffel trailing by as much as 20 points,” Greer added.
Mings believes that Hoeffel is a viable candidate. He noted that the race is a top priority for the Democratic Senatorial Committee. “The race is certainly going to tighten up.”
Carl Schmid is a Republican lobbyist on gay and AIDS issues who has worked closely with HRC. He called the decision a major disappointment. “Why would you abandon your lead sponsor for ENDA, and the chair of appropriations for AIDS funding?…And he’s the incumbent. HRC has a policy of supporting the incumbent. To abandon one of our leaders is a grave mistake,” Schmid said. “We still have to work with Specter this year, and I would guess, many years to come.” The Senator is in line to chair the Judiciary Committee in the next Congress.
Log Cabin Republicans political director Christopher Barron echoed those concerns. He recited the list of Specter’s efforts on community issues and said, “For us there was really no question, it was a slam-dunk to endorse Sen. Specter for reelection,” which they did in early July. “Spector almost lost his Senate seat [in the primary in April] in part because of his support for gay and lesbian issues. I believe that this community owes it Sen. Specter to stand up and support him for all of the years of standing up and supporting us.”
“HRC has said that they are a bipartisan organization but if they can’t endorse Sen. Specter, it’s difficult to find what Republican senators they could endorse,” Barron said.
When asked if the litmus test means that only the six Republican Senators who voted against cloture would be considered for HRC’s endorsement, Mings replied, “A couple of those people wouldn’t qualify for other reasons.”
Schmid acknowledged some validity to HRC making the FMA procedural vote a litmus test. “Well, then Kerry and Edwards should have been there. Like David Mixner said, he was very disappointed they weren’t there, because this was not just a procedural vote. Well, you can’t have it both ways. Either it was a procedural vote or it wasn’t. You can’t give a bye to Edwards and Kerry.”
Mings explanation is, “We have never marked people down for an absence.”
Greer calls that legislative gymnastics by HRC to support this ticket, and punish Specter. He believes the community’s goals are better advanced when they don’t base endorsements on one vote when there is an entire portfolio of issues that the community is affected by.
Mark Segal is publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and has been active in Democratic politics in Pennsylvania for decades. He calls Specter a fly by night friend who we can only occasionally count on.
Nonetheless, he endorsed Specter in his tough primary fight this year against an ultra-right wing Republican, though he will be voting for Hoeffel in November.
Segal panned Specter’s procedural vote on the FMA and supports HRC’s decision to use this as a litmus test issue. “You have to take a stand somewhere. It’s about time gay and lesbian people have pride enough to vote for their rights.”
“I don’t think they had any choice,” said Ken Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City. “I honestly think that HRC had a constituency problem, as a consequence of the D’Amato situation. Their endorsement of the incumbent Republican Senator from New York in 1998 drew a howl of protest from some within the community.
“The Republican Party does not have much currency within the LGBT community right now. I think the standard that Republicans are being held to, rightly or wrongly, is are you with us or are you against us? Other Republicans voted the other way, he had options and he made a decision.
“Specter is, by all accounts, a rather bright man, a real experienced pro,” said Sherrill. “I wouldn’t even be surprised if he had an agreement with HRC. It might help him to be denied this endorsement. A conservative third party candidate is likely to be on the ballot as well in November.”