Longtime split in GOP tries inclusion creed

Texas at heart of debate over gays and lesbians

By Catalina Camia and Kathy Lewis, The Dallas Morning News (front page)
June 18, 1998 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

(WASHINGTON, DC) – Once again, the Republican Party is at the center of a debate about gays and lesbians, and Texas appears to be ground zero for much of the discussion.

The Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political organization, were denied an information booth at the Texas GOP convention in Fort Worth last week. This week, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Irving, joined Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., in calling homosexuality a sin.

Both incidents highlight a long-standing conflict within the Republican Party between religious conservatives and social moderates, testing the thesis that the GOP should be a "big tent." By comparison, President Clinton has actively courted the support of gays and lesbians.

The GOP schism could be exposed again in August, when gay Republicans meet in Dallas for their national convention.

Former Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., who is gay, said the debate "is a total redefinition of what the Republican Party stands for today by some people. No one can claim to be in the party of Abraham Lincoln and advocate this kind of discrimination and prejudice... It rejects everything Lincoln ever did."

The Rev. Lou Sheldon, a religious conservative who agrees with Mr. Armey and Mr. Lott, said inclusion has its limits.

"There's no problem with the big tent," said Mr. Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, a nationwide church network. "But you don't want a bunch of mush in the tent so that the pegs in your tent can't stay up."

Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said the gay debate does not have the potential for rivaling the abortion fight in the party.

"But clearly it is very divisive and it portrays the Republicans as a party that is not really interested in attracting homosexuals," he said. "It's almost like a litmus test."

A Republican Party spokesman, however, said the party is not trying to exclude anyone.

"The Republican Party is a party of communication, not excommunication," said the spokesman, Mike Collins.

"It's like Ronald Reagan said," Mr. Collins continued, "This is a party for all who embrace our philosophy, and that is smaller government, lower taxes and family values. We are also tolerant of different lifestyles and different religious beliefs."

The Republican conflict arose in Texas at the state GOP convention and a party spokesman, Robert Black, likened the Log Cabin group to the Ku Klux Klan.

The spat grew so intense that Gov. George W. Bush told everyone to cool off and stop the name-calling and said individuals "deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

Log Cabin Republicans held a rally last week outside the Texas GOP convention, where Log Cabin executive director Rich Tafel said they were subjected to name-calling that is unprintable. On Aug. 14 through 16, the group will meet at the Fairmount Hotel in Dallas.

The debate extends to Washington, where the ambassadorial nomination of James Hormel, who is openly gay, has been stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate for months.

Mr. Lott, meanwhile, compared homosexuality Monday to a disease that could be treated like alcoholism or sexual addiction.

His comments that homosexuality is a sin were echoed a day later by Mr. Armey, who was criticized in 1995 for referring to Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is gay, as "Barney Fag."

Mr. Tafel said the political rhetoric about homosexuality has not been this hot since 1992, when Republican Pat Buchanan assailed Democrat Bill Clinton for supporting abortion rights and gay rights.

Like Mr. Gunderson, Mr. Tafel also attributes the recent remarks to Republican attempts to woo religious conservatives, who have complained that GOP congressional leaders have not been forceful in pushing their agenda.

The Rev. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, a conservative group, even threatened to bolt from the party and take with him the votes of religious conservatives who were instrumental in electing Republicans to Congress in 1994 and 1996.

Republicans are "looking for red meat they can give religious conservatives," Mr. Tafel said. "The gay issue is the most controversial. In general, people say they want to tolerate gays and lesbians, but when you talk about issues such as gay adoption, the public starts to waffle."

Dr. Dobson defended Mr. Lott and Mr. Armey.

"Leaders willing to be set apart and stand solidly in the truth are rare in today's permissive culture," he said. "It is far easier to go with the tide than willingly subject oneself to the fury of homosexual activists, the media and the political elite."

Mr. Tafel said recent attempts by Republicans to attack gays and lesbians have backfired in the California Senate primary and the Nebraska gubernatorial primary. Still, analysts said the recent debate runs counter to Republican attempts to broaden their base.

"Certainly this is an appeal that will receive resonance among socially conservative Republicans. And if that is what it was designed to do, it probably has achieved its impact," said Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University. "But it sort of reinforces the notion that the Christian Coalition dominates the Republicans on social issues, and I don't think that is desirable if you want to broaden your base in your party."

The White House is pushing for a vote on Mr. Hormel, a San Francisco philanthropist, to be ambassador to Luxembourg.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his nomination, but several Republican senators have put a hold on the nomination. Mr. Lott has not scheduled a vote. An administration official, who requested anonymity, said Mr. Clinton discussed the nomination privately with Mr. Lott months ago in an effort to convince him to go ahead.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz, a Republican, is among those who have written a letter of support for Mr. Hormel. If confirmed, Mr. Hormel would become the first openly gay foreign envoy.

Mr. Clinton has taken a different approach.

In 1992, he actively campaigned for the support of gay voters. Administration officials estimate that he has appointed about 150 gays and lesbians.

Although some gay leaders were disappointed that Mr. Clinton endorsed a "don't ask/don't tell" policy instead of abolishing the ban on gays in the military, many say his overall record is good.

Mr. Black, the political scientist, said he doubts that most voters believe the gay issue should be part of the political debate.

He said he would apply the Sam Rayburn test, referring to the late speaker of the House from Texas.

"Would Sam Rayburn have done this? Would Sam Rayburn ever have made a comment like this? Of course not – on abortion or on this... I think he would have believed that these are not matters that are the province of public parties. These are private matters best left to the privacy of one's home."