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Where Do We Go Now?

Looking for Leadership in the Democratic Party

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The finger pointing began immediately.

Standing outside her opulent home in San Francisco on Wednesday, just hours after John Kerry conceded the election, Senator Dianne Feinstein accused the city's liberal mayor of helping George W. Bush win. She was referring to last Valentine's Day, when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom began handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Although the Massachusetts Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriages just days earlier, it was San Francisco that became the focal point for gay and lesbian rights. (Multnomah County, even though it handed out licenses longer than San Francisco, was largely ignored on the national level.)

Those images, said Sen. Feinstein at last week's press conference, "energized a very conservative vote." Feinstein added, "I think it gave them a position to rally around. I think that the whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon; people aren't ready for it."

Feinstein is finishing her third term as one of California's senators, and is a powerful member of the Democratic Party.

In the aftermath of last week's disappointing election, her comments clearly show a radical divide in the party--between grassroots activists and high-up honchos. It also brings into question whether the Democratic leadership has the backbone to pursue the concerns and demands of its constituents--especially from liberal enclaves like San Francisco and Portland. (Surely, the Republicans have no trouble pushing agendas from their more conservative districts).

Both U.S. Congressmen representing Portland, Earl Blumenauer and David Wu, are Democrats and were re-elected to Congress this past week. Yet in spite of overwhelming concern in Portland for protecting gay and lesbian rights, in an interview with the Mercury, Rep. Blumenauer wouldn't promise to pursue pro-gay legislation. (But he did express disappointment over Measure 36.)

Instead Blumenauer said he would defer to Barney Frank's judgment on how to proceed. A longtime U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts, Frank is the country's highest-ranking openly gay politician. Like Blumenauer, many Democrats defer to Frank's judgment on gay and lesbian issues.

But in spite of his stature within the Democratic Party, Frank is hardly a bang-the-drum leader for gay and lesbian rights. Like Sen. Feinstein, Rep. Frank was and is opposed to Mayor Newsom's decision in February to hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Instead, Rep. Frank urged Newsom to wait and allow the courts and legislature to work out the matter--an attitude akin to telling Rosa Parks to stay in the back of the bus until the courts get around to standing up for her rights.

In an interview with the New York Times, Frank said that San Francisco's "spectacle weddings" helped to galvanize conservative support for Bush.

Blumenauer also told the Mercury he was pessimistic that anyone in Congress would introduce legislation to protect gay and lesbian rights. He attributed that reticence to political gamesmanship, pointing his finger at the Republican-controlled House, lorded over by Tom DeLay, a representative from Texas' heartland since 1994.

"DeLay won't let anything out [of committee]," explained Blumenauer. "We're not going to spend the time and energy."

Instead of accepting responsibility and taking the lead on issues, Blumenauer's attitude lets the Republicans call the plays. Even so, Blumenauer was optimistic that there was movement at the ground level on these issues.

"What is the middle ground in the U.S. now? Civil unions." said Blumenauer. "Whoa! Could you have imagined that five years ago?"

Blumenauer went on to explain that many of those changes are, indeed, not coming from national leaders but from places like forward-thinking businesses that provide benefits for same-sex partners. (Again, raising the question: Exactly what is the Democratic Party doing to push forward civil rights at the national level?)

The Democratic Party has long been the de facto party for progressives. Yet, although seven states considered bans against same-sex marriages in the recent election (all passed), few Democratic candidates or elected officials publicly stood up against them. Even John Kerry cowered behind his centrist stance.

Do we really want leaders who won't push progressive ideals, like equality? Is that even leadership when we need to water down our values and expectations to meet politicians' "realities" and concerns about maintaining their careers?

Call Rep. Blumenauer (local office, 231-2300), call Rep. Wu (local office, 326-2901); tell them you elected them to represent you.

Or, maybe it is time to start shopping for a new party. One that can commit to decisive action and can represent local concerns--like gay and lesbian rights.

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