Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Ehrlich's Sharp Right Turn

The Governor’s cowardly veto of pro-gay bills solidifies his alignment with religious right

By Steve Charing

Remember over 20 years ago how the Baltimore Colts slithered their way out of Baltimore in the dead of night? In a similarly craven move, Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. chose the late Friday afternoon of Preakness weekend, where the publicity would be the most minimal, to veto two pro-gay bills as well as a series of other progressive measures.

This cowardly act establishes once and for all that Mr. Ehrlich’s self-portrayal as a moderate in a moderate state is indeed a fraud. As in the case of President Bush, Ehrlich is in bed with the extreme right wing elements of a Party that has been hijacked by self-righteous intrusive but exclusionary moralists, religious fanatics, bigots and homophobes. If the Republicans continue on this course, we should dub them the Christian Taliban.

I’m not the only one who is drawing this conclusion. Dan Furmansky, Executive Director of Equality Maryland—the largest lgbt civil rights organization in the state who worked feverishly to get the bills passed—told Baltimore OUTloud, "What makes Governor Ehrlich's vetoes truly pathetic is that he probably would have signed the bills if he had his druthers, but this man lacks integrity. He is a pawn of the far right elements of the Maryland Republican Party, who have as many moderates in the General Assembly as I can count on two hands," said Furmansky. "Unfortunately, he is a coward that is afraid to stand up to the anti-gay zealots who have officially taken over the Republican Party in this state."

One of the bills vetoed by the Governor was the hard-fought Medical Decision-Making Act that had been ultimately passed with a significant margin in both houses of the General Assembly. The other —the Transfer & Recordation Tax Exemption Bill—would have allowed same-sex couples to transfer real estate to each other without paying recordation and transfer taxes, a privilege afforded to married couples. Veto overrides next January are uncertain at this juncture, but prospects appear dim.

The Medical Decision-Making Act was designed to establish a statewide domestic partner registry so that members of all unmarried couples, both gay and straight, would be allowed to make key decisions regarding the health care of the affected partner. There were also other provisions not contained in advance directives that would have allowed benefits that are conferred upon married couples, such as hospital visitation rights, sharing an ambulance and the right to partners’ living in the same nursing home room.

However, Governor Ehrlich collapsed under the pressures from the likes of Republican extremists Delegate Donald H. Dwyer, Jr., Senator Nancy Jacobs and Senator Alex X. Mooney as well as other homophobes who, in the name of religion and morality, have captured the Governor’s ear (and soul). He vetoed the bill saying, "…the creation a new term of life partner will open the door to undermine the sanctity of traditional marriage." How visiting your sick partner in a hospital room would impact the marriage of the Governor and Kendal Ehrlich is a mystery that defies both logic and common decency.

"[The] vetoes are confirmation that the moderate wing of the Republican Party in Maryland, which the Governor is supposed to represent, has dwindled into obscurity," said openly gay Delegate Richard S. Madaleno (D-Kensington). "Truly moderate Republican Governors around the nation, like Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell and California Governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar, have lent support for far more comprehensive measures than those the Governor killed."
The vetoes surprised many who believed the Governor needed to burnish his credentials as a moderate to appeal to that large segment of the voting population that helped him get elected in the first place and are critical to his re-election chances.

But these anti-gay actions are consistent with Ehrlich’s attitudes throughout his political career towards the lgbt community. In his current term, Mr. Ehrlich declared on his favorite medium, talk radio, that he would not permit same-sex marriages "on his watch." As a member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Ehrlich was given a lowly pro-gay score of 25 out of 100 by the Human Rights Campaign—the nation’s largest lgbt advocacy organization—that was slightly better than that of the reactionary Rep. Roscoe Bartlett’s score of zero. When he was a member of Maryland’s House of Delegates, Mr. Ehrlich railed against gays and lesbians receiving "special rights."

Not only did these vetoes slap the face of the lgbt community at large, it was a strike against Mr. Ehrlich’s own chief of staff, Steven L. Kreseski—who is said to be openly gay—as well as other gay members of the Governor’s staff. On John Aravosis’, "John in DC" offered the following: "How interesting that Governor Ehrlich, a Republican, is worried that gays threaten the sanctity of marriage when his own chief of staff, Steve Kreseski, is openly gay and has been for the 15 years I've known him."

He continued, "It's hard to believe that Ehrlich doesn't know Steve is gay, he's been out and about in town since the early 1990s at least, and Steve even once told me years ago, when he was working for Ehrlich on the Hill, that Ehrlich knew he was gay. So the question is begged: Why does Ehrlich have an open gay chief of staff if Ehrlich claims to support the family values agenda? If gays threaten that agenda then how can he have a gay as chief of staff?"
Baltimore OUTloud attempted to reach Mr. Kreseski for comments on how the vetoes would impact the gay members of the Governor’s staff. He referred the question to the Governor’s Press Office, which did not return calls to OUTloud.

It is inconceivable how the Governor can object to a person visiting a loved one in the hospital. Just as the decision to allow same-sex marriage in Massachusetts served to mobilize the "base" for Republicans, the vetoes may produce the same outcome but in reverse. This should galvanize Maryland’s pissed off lgbt community to take action to make him a one-term governor. He posed as a moderate, but his actions show that he’s clearly a fake.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The Glass is Half Full

The latest poll on gay marriage attitudes offers rays of hope

By Steve Charing

Upon the one-year anniversary of the historic beginning of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, we note that over 6,100 gay and lesbian couples have wed in the Bay State. The latest poll, published by the Boston Globe and conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center of 760 randomly selected adults during May 4-9, showed half of Americans object to same-sex marriages and do not want their states to recognize gay marriages from Massachusetts. Thirty-seven percent approved such marriages while eleven percent were neutral. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent.

While the poll found that half of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, 46 percent of those surveyed indicated support for civil unions that would provide lgbt couples with "some, but not all of the legal rights of married couples." Forty-one percent were against civil unions.

Since the landmark ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in November 2003, 18 states have amended their constitutions to define marriage as between a man and a woman (with more on the way), thus slamming the doors on same-sex marriage in these states pending possible court challenges. To make matters worse, President Bush on a number of occasions called for a federal constitutional amendment—the Defense of Marriage Act—that would, in effect, ban same-sex marriage. Although the proposed amendment failed to get by either chamber of Congress last year, nowhere is there a consensus among Americans that believes allowing same-sex marriage is the fair and right thing to do.

Sounds bad huh? Not really.

Poll results are always seen through the prism of one’s convictions; they can be viewed as either the glass is half full or half empty, and the numbers are always subject to interpretation and discussion. On the controversial issue of same-sex marriage, the glass is half full, but there is an enormous way to go to fill the glass to the brim.

Many lgbt equality advocates point to the experience in Massachusetts as reason for hope. "While the outside world debates how to treat its gay couples, Massachusetts sees that fire-and-brimstone predictions didn't come true," wrote Deb Price in USA Today on May 17—the one-year anniversary of the first same-sex weddings in Massachusetts. "Religious institutions haven't been forced to bless the civil marriage of any gay couple, though many have done so voluntarily." And the Globe, in an editorial, observed, "the world, unsurprisingly, has not fallen off its axis."

"The story of the last year is not just about these couples, it is also about how the radical right’s outlandish claims proved to be totally unfounded," said Patrick Guerriero, president of the Log Cabin Republicans. "Massachusetts has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country, and for most people, very little has changed over the last year."

Accordingly, the citizens of Massachusetts have done a hundred and eighty-degree turn and are overwhelmingly supportive of same-sex marriage. Another poll by the Globe taken in March shows that Bay Staters support these marriages by a 56 to 37 percent majority. In February 2004, the results indicated that more people had opposed same-sex marriage by a 53 to 35 percent margin. "People find out that when Adam and Steve marry next door, it doesn't hurt them, but it does help Adam and Steve," says pollster Bob Meadow of Decision Research.

And to some, the tide appears to be turning nationwide. "We have withstood a huge gay bashing assault and still 4 out of 10 people think [same-sex] marriage is OK, 11 percent could care less, and only 50 percent of the country is against gay marriage," said Kevin Jordan, co-chair of the PFLAG-Howard County Advocacy Committee, referring to the latest poll results. "Half the country is not on the side of [the opponents of marriage equality]. This is huge."

Jordan is correct. During the entire presidential election campaign, the question of same-sex marriage was mixed in along with terrorism, the economy and the war in Iraq as issues that mattered most to voters. Despite Senator John Kerry’s public opposition to same-sex marriage, the Republicans saw fit to bludgeon him over the head with the issue and may have contributed to higher GOP Evangelical-Christian voter turnout in the pivotal state of Ohio, thereby tipping the election towards Mr. Bush. And with constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage on the ballots of 11 states during the election cycle, the anti-gay marriage rhetoric filled the air like a poisonous dense fog.

The scare tactics that were designed by Karl Rove and his fear and smear machine and employed by the anti-gay Republicans were manifested in inflammatory sermons at churches (including African-American churches), divisive and often false radio messages and other under-the-radar negative advertising. Adding to the woes was the fact there were no major leaders in either Party advocating same-sex marriage. If they didn’t oppose it outright, they chose to run away from the issue; therefore, no pro-gay voices were heard to offset the vitriol.

Moreover, opposition to the federal constitutional amendment question was framed more around the appropriateness or lack thereof, of using the Constitution to encroach upon states’ rights regarding marriage policy. The fairness argument was mute.

Having withstood the barrage of anti-gay marriage messages with virtually no clear voice to counter them, the public’s attitudes appear to be moving ever so slowly towards the more positive side. "Public acceptance is growing, and polling data and trends show we’re gaining ground," Jay Smith, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign told Baltimore OUTloud. "People more and more see same-sex marriage as a matter of fairness."

This is especially true in Massachusetts, where the citizens have witnessed these marriages without the threatened Armageddon. What we need now are more states like Massachusetts to help top off that half-full glass.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Steele Factory

The forging of Michael Steele into the GOP’s rising star should be a concern for gays

By Steve Charing

Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele will be the Republican candidate for Senator to fill Sen. Paul Sarbanes’ vacant seat in 2006. You can take that to the bank. He hasn’t announced his candidacy yet; he’s mulling over his options, which would include his desire to be governor in the future, his teaming up with Gov. Ehrlich for a re-election bid in 2006, as well as his own family considerations, but he will accept the GOP nomination for Senator. Count on it.

Mr. Steele is clearly the most prominent African-American Republican in the state, and he was the first ever African-American to hold the position of Lieutenant Governor in Maryland. Since last summer, the national GOP has anointed him as a potential "rising star" in the Party. That, in itself, is rather odd because Mr. Steele, 46, never held an elected office prior to his being teamed up with Governor Ehrlich and, therefore, is not a proven vote getter. But Republican strategists view Mr. Steele as the best chance in decades to win Sen. Sarbanes’ seat.

Spotlight on Steele
The former chairman of the state’s Republican Party—and the nation’s only African-American to hold such a post—was given a high profile speaking slot during the Republican National Convention. To select the Lieutenant Governor over a sitting governor of the same party speaks volumes as to how Mr. Steele is perceived by the GOP power brokers and election strategists. Following the Convention he went on and campaigned tirelessly for the President’s re-election in places outside of Maryland—especially in the pivotal state of Ohio—amassing valuable IOUs.
Moreover, President Bush selected Mr. Steele to be part of a three-man delegation to represent him and the country in attending the installation of Pope Benedict XVI. A devout Catholic and former seminarian, Lt. Governor Steele was a natural choice. But it was yet another opportunity to elevate his profile and to remind Maryland’s largely Catholic voters of his religious affiliation.

A key component of the GOP strategy
To a Party that is yearning for African-American support and believes it is trending in that direction, Michael Steele is the Messiah, or so it seems. His being an African-American would be the cornerstone of the Republican strategy of attracting conservative blacks to help bolster the GOP agenda. (Another strategy is doling out faith-based initiative money to black churches to promote opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and other pet conservative issues.)
And for the Republicans and the President, a GOP Senate win in Maryland would be tantamount to the Orioles winning the World Series. It would represent a major, unexpected victory that would embolden Republicans as they fervently seek a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority.

To further the point, Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican National Committee, named Michael Steele to the Party’s newly formed, highly visible African-American Advisory Committee. In discussing a possible Steele run for the Senate, "The lieutenant governor is an incredibly strong candidate," Mehlman said at a fundraiser in Baltimore County last month. "Whatever he decides to do, he's going to be successful." In addition, Karl Rove, the GOP’s strategy wizard, has approached him to run. And if Michael Steele is to be the nominee (and he will), he would receive significant RNC backing. Translation: tons of money, volunteers on the ground and organizational help.

Governor or Senator?
Although it has been reported Mr. Steele would eye the Governor’s Mansion in 2010, a run for the Senate, with a reasonable chance for winning, would bring out the GOP base and help Governor Ehrlich’s re-election chances, which appear, at this point, sketchy at best. After witnessing the turmoil that the Governor has experienced especially in the General Assembly, Mr. Steele would find it far less stressful in the U.S. Senate chamber where he would hold a very prestigious, influential position on a national stage. It would be too tempting to brush aside this golden opportunity. Besides, since the Republican power brokers want him to run, he may not want to rebuke their pleas lest he lose similarly strong support in future election efforts.

Steele and the lgbt community: a tough read
While Governor Ehrlich strategically ponders the fate of four pro-gay bills recently passed in the General Assembly, neither he nor Mr. Steele publicly expressed a position one way or the other.
In Annapolis late January Michael Steele "represented" the governor by speaking briefly at a virulently anti-gay "Defend Marriage Rally" consisting of religious conservatives who were demanding a superfluous amendment to the state’s Constitution reiterating that marriage should only be allowed between a man and a woman. He backed the traditional union but did not publicly support a constitutional amendment to prevent gays from marrying. "We are here to affirm that marriage is only between a man and a woman," Mr. Steele said. "We need to make it clear where Maryland stands."

Michael Steele hasn’t provided many clues on his attitude towards the lgbt community mainly because of the political reality that he (and the governor) must retain support from moderates to succeed in Maryland. That explains the reticence by Ehrlich and Steele concerning the recent legislation. Many analysts familiar with statewide politics believe that both would prefer the measures be part of a 2006 referendum so that neither would have their fingerprints on the bills and risk offending conservatives and moderates alike.

Precious little evidence is available, however, that would put Michael Steele in the gay-friendly category. "I am sure Michael Steele is not a homophobe," Joe Zuber, the former president of the Maryland Chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans told me. "I consider [Steele] a friend and that he knows I’m an openly gay man. We’ve hugged."

Real Time confusion
There was hope in gaining some clarity as to Michael Steele’s thoughts on gay issues during a recent appearance on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. That did not happen. While he essentially stood his ground against a combative panel and moderator (Maher) and a rather hostile audience, he didn’t shed much light on these issues. Part of this was attributable to his vague stances; most was due to the frequent interruptions by his co-panelists. However, in addressing the charge of homophobia within the black community, he did argue that "the other side of the coin" is that one must respect the "values" (there’s that word again) taught by others or had been read in the Bible by those who believe that homosexuality is wrong. When Maher asked him if in fact he’s tolerating intolerance, Mr. Steele replied "No, I’m not. I’m not." He was never given the chance to complete his point.

"Senator" Steele could hurt gays
The prospect of a Steele Senate victory could be troublesome for Maryland’s lgbt citizens. This is obviously not based on any fiery anti-gay rhetoric spewing from his lips or clearly defined positions that undermine the lgbt community. But he is a social conservative, tied to his religious beliefs. I believe he is sensitive to homophobic African-American ministers and their congregations because this is a coveted constituency by the GOP. Perhaps that is why he spoke at January’s rabid anti-gay rally and not at Equality Maryland’s Lobby Day gathering held the next month at the same location.

"Our community would have a lot to be concerned about if we lost Paul Sarbanes' vacant Senate seat to Lt. Governor Michael Steele," said Dan Furmansky, Executive Director of Equality Maryland, the state’s largest lgbt advocacy group. "Sen. Sarbanes has been a staunch supporter of lgbt rights, while our Lt. Governor has gone so far as to speak at that anti-gay rally in Annapolis organized by Del. Don Dwyer, the most extreme member of the Maryland Republican Party."

Regardless of what is in his heart, he will almost certainly, as senator, tow the Republican line. This is true especially if he has any dreams of gaining a position on a coveted committee or even a window office. And the Republican line is anti-gay for no other reason is that it taps into the country’s homophobes, religious zealots and bigots—all proven GOP voters.
Accordingly, he would be inclined to vote for a U.S. Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage should it come before him then. He would not favor the end of the insanely counterproductive "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy in the military. And he would most likely not support ENDA—the measure that would add "sexual orientation" to federal anti-discrimination laws.

But most importantly, the election of Michael Steele to the Senate would bring the Republicans one step closer to complete dominance in all branches of government. A filibuster-proof majority in the Senate would allow Bush’s extreme right-wing judicial nominations to sail through. That’s not a good thing for gays and their families.