Editor's Note: Guest blogger Adam Bink is the Online Strategy Manager at Progressive Strategies, LLC, and manages design and advertising at OpenLeft.com, a blog covering national progressive politics. He is a Dupont Circle resident and enjoys cooking, cycling, ultimate frisbee, and independent shops of all kinds.
Cross-posted at OpenLeft.com
Harvey Milk used to get into intra-movement battles over whether to push openly gay candidates or straight ally candidates with his nemesis in San Francisco gay politics, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic club. The Toklas' Club philosophy was to work closely with straight allies, not antagonize anybody, and endorse straight candidates for seats on the Board of Supervisors, cautiously believing gay candidates- especially ones with Milk's politics and methods- could never win and that the city wasn't ready for them. Milk, who was refused the Toklas Club endorsement in his first race for Supervisor in 1975, his race for an Assembly seat in 1976, and his second race for Supervisor in 1977 (the latter because Rick Stokes, a strong openly gay ally of the Club, was running) was so frustrated with the Toklas Club methods that he formed his own organization, the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club, after losing his Assembly race.
But Harvey was living in a time when there were no major pieces of pro-LGBT legislation, no strong advocates on the Board of Supervisors, and no openly LGBT elected officials in the country. Today, all of that's changed.
I'm thinking about all of this because here in DC, Clark Ray, an openly gay candidate, is running against an incumbent Councilman Phil Mendelson, perhaps the strongest ally of the LGBT community and a straight man. It gets at the heart of what Milk stood for, and choices we need to make as a movement. Yet Ray is, as I see it, making three arguments for his candidacy, all of which are neither strategic nor persuasive.
The first argument is that Mendelson is ineffective. From Ray's press release (and splashed across the banner of his website):
"We believe that Clark Ray as a member of the DC Council will serve based on his dynamic VISION for what our City can become," the release reads. "He is someone who has proven that he is a man of ACTION and that he can get RESULTS."
Okay. Does this stand in contrast to Mendelson? From Metro Weekly, one of DC's LGBT newspapers:
Four months after being fired from his post as the director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation -- the highest openly gay appointee in Mayor Fenty's administration at the time -- Clark Ray has announced that he's formally running for the at-large City Council seat currently occupied by Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D).
And while the many GLBT locals who are among the more than 250 people on the committee formed to draft Ray into this race are celebrating the announcement, some who are not are left perplexed. That's because Mendelson, who is straight and currently serving his third term, has a reputation as one of the GLBT community's strongest allies.
Bob Summersgill, who has worked with Mendelson on a series of bills expanding domestic-partnership laws for same-sex couples living in D.C., sits in the Mendelson camp.
"Why would anyone want to replace Phil Mendelson?" Summersgill asks. "Phil has the best record on gay issues on the D.C. Council."
Summersgill is dead-on here. Mendelson worked with the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance to enact the city's the city's domestic partnership laws and numerous expansions, which allow couples to visit one another in the hospital, ability to file taxes jointly, ability to sue for a partner's negligent death, etc. He sponsored and enacted a new law just last month that enables the partner of a new lesbian mother to become the legal parent of a child conceived by artificial insemination. He has long been on record in support of marriage equality, and made headlines when he wrote to Mayor Fenty in March urging him to support a new law that recognizes out-of-state marriages in DC- a law, which, of course, Mendelson then introduced and saw through passage and enactment. He's received awards and endorsements from the GLAA, Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, and The Center (the LGBT community center).
Ray's slogan implies that Mendelson is an ineffective dolt with no vision. What about a vision for LGBT equality and fairness, which he's actually taken steps to achieve? What about the fact that Mendelson has written, sponsored and passed more legislation on LGBT issues on the Council than any other member? What about the fact that as Chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, he has moved comprehensive crime legislation this summer, done a ton of good work to respond to the Supreme Court ruling on the DC v. Heller case, and taken the lead on the controversial and likely unconstitutional "checkpoints" issue? The campaign theme is unconvincing. Say what you will about Mendelson, but it's hard to say he doesn't get action and results.
For Ray's talk of vision, how does it stand in contrast to Mendelson's?
"I honestly don't know what Councilmember Mendelson's vision is," says Ray. "I haven't been that closely listening to him as a single councilmember.
Uh, ok. Well, then, why are you running?
"I'm telling you that the things I'm going to concentrate on are the same issues that the city government folks have worked on for years: education, economic development and public safety. I want to come in and maybe look at some of the same old problems in a different way."
Ray's draft committee chair, Peter Rosenstein, repeated this argument in the Washington City Paper:
But I personally...believe these are not lifetime positions, that you need new blood, new ideas, and need someone who is ready to re-energize the council. While I personally want to thank Phil for all he's done, it think it's time for someone new.
I asked Peter to clarify his comments, who told me:
I don't know what Mendelson's vision is. I don't actually know if he has one. In his last campaign, he was proud to be called a nit-picker. I think nit-picking small pieces of government is something a staffer could do. The member of the Council needs a vision, an overall vision of where he believes the City should go to make it better, and how that can happen, and so I don't know if Councilmember Mendelson has a vision. But I do know Clark Ray has a vision on how to move this city forward.
That brings us to the second argument- that Mendelson is taking the same old tired approaches and has no vision for the city. And that three terms for Mendelson is enough.
I'm normally keen to these arguments, except when the member's ideas are actually getting things done in a positive way, so I don't care much whether he's a nit-picker or a big-picture type of person. Mendelson is both supportive and effective. Three terms is not exactly a lifetime. Nor is experience a bad thing. Mendelson knows the Council, knows DC politics, and how to move legislation, inside and out. He's clearly good at it. His pieces of LGBT legislation has gotten unanimous or near-unanimous support and become law. He has become an important progressive face on crime issues. It takes time for Ray to accomplish that. It's kind of silly for Ray to argue that he, as a freshman member- even one with his experience in city government- would be a man of action and get results versus someone who, well, takes action and gets results. It's like arguing to replace Ted Kennedy before he became ill. The man is a legislative force of nature, something even the Republicans concede. Should he have been put out to pasture because he's experienced?
The third argument is, plainly, that we need more openly gay members of the DC Council (there are two, out of 13 seats). As a gay man, I'm sympathetic to this, but replacing a strong ally with someone just because he's gay is unstrategic and petty. And make no mistake- Ray is running as the "gay" candidate in this race. Take a look at the list of people on his steering committee:
The author of the release is Peter Rosenstein, the longtime gay activist who was once Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's most vocal supporter in the GLBT community. The draft committee list of more than 80 names includes a number of folks active in gay-and-lesbian politics (Darrin Glymph, Lane Hudson, Sheila Alexander Reid), some neighborhood activist types (Cary Silverman, Jack Jacobson, Laurie Collins), and a few political wild cards (Adam Clampitt, Neil Richardson, Judith Terra, Jacque Patterson, Cora Masters Barry).
Adam Clampitt challenged incumbent Councilwoman Carol Schwartz in a 2008 race that focused on his support for marriage equality. Also on the list is Brad Luna, HRC Communications Director; Trevor Thomas, HRC Deputy Communications Director; Phil Attey, who co-chaired Obama Pride-DC; John Klenert, an activist on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. I know many of these people personally, and respect them. But I have a hard time believing he's getting their support for any other reason than the fact that he's gay. I have a hard time because he's not running on anything else that makes any sense. Mendelson doesn't get anything done? Mendelson has no vision?
Thinking I was mistaken, I asked Lane about why he was backing Ray. He told me:
Phil is effective, a hard worker, and a great legislator. You won't hear me say anything negative about Phil Mendelson. I have no complaints about him whatsoever. And I don't believe in term limits. Clark can be all those same things as well. I just believe that given a choice between two excellent people, I would choose someone who can be a role model for young LGBT people. I think we need more people in public life who are openly gay.
I, too, believe we need more openly gay elected officials. But I'm not interested in getting it by kicking the most supportive and effective ally on the Council to the curb with a "thank you for your service." It actually reeks of reverse Don't Ask, Don't Tell discharges- we like what you've done, thanks for your service, but we found a gay guy, so take a hike.
Peter, to his credit, made a better argument, telling me:
If you follow through what you're saying, then what you're also saying that if you shouldn't run against a Caucasian that is supportive of civil rights. If you have a man who's supportive of women's rights, women shouldn't run against that person. If you have a straight person who's supportive of gay rights, a gay person should never run against him. I think we're at that point in DC where everybody needs a seat at the table, where everybody can say "I can do a better job that you've done."
I certainly agree with that. Except Mendelson has made LGBT rights one of the prime foci of his legislative career. It's not a matter of who should never run against who. It's a matter of Mendelson being good at what he does, and I'm generally not in favor of kicking effective leaders out. There are certainly politicians with great voting records who don't do much except vote and bring home the bacon. Many of them deserve to be replaced. Those who are leaders do not.
It's the wrong way to get what we want. It is self-defeating, and in a long-term view, unstrategic. If we primary our most supportive ally on the Council, how much more LGBT support (and action) are we going to get from the rest of the Council? What does it say to the other members? My peers would say it sends a message of "be more pro-LGBT". Yet every single member of the Council except one is on record in support of marriage equality, as is Mayor Fenty. Mendelson's LGBT legislation gets near-unanimous support every time. If you go to a DC Pride parade, nearly every single member of the Council is there, marching. There's really nowhere to go but down for our straight allies. There is no more "be more pro-LGBT". There is only screwing your allies because they're straight.
For the progressive movement, we have and will face decisions like this. I think every case is unique. But we progressives need to pick and choose our battles, and reward people with carrots when they are supportive and effective- not kick them to the curb for diversity's sake.