It's no coincidence that the mug of Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is featured on the Stonewall Democrats' national convention poster this year. The gay political group is headed here June 2-4 for its semi-annual gathering partly because the Penn Hills Republican is a top Democratic target in this fall's election.
Much of the days' events will focus on teaching attendees how to muster volunteers to get the Dems' message out, both on issues central to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and on other progressive issues near and dear to a certain variety of Democrat.
And these activists, says Scott Safier of Point Breeze, co-chair of Steel-City Stonewall Democrats, are just the group to do it.
"The LGBT is the second most loyal block of Democratic votes, right after the African-American community," Safier says, citing exit polling.
The convention, which Safier expects to draw 250 people from around the country, will feature political organizing workshops on such topics as bringing the LGBT message to the black community (led by Khari Mosley, head of the local League of Young Voters chapter) and other grassroots efforts. The convention will end with a mass door-to-door get-out-the-message effort in the city's 11th and 8th wards, which span East Liberty, Highland Park and Shadyside.
The group is hoping not only to muster its message for the defeat of Santorum and re-election of Gov. Ed Rendell (who is speaking on the convention's last day, to kick off the neighborhood canvas), but to help the large number of convention attendees who are expected from border states, such as New York, Maryland and Ohio.
"For the first time in years, the Ohio state [Democratic] party looks like it is ready to retake Ohio," Safier says.
"Our goal is to really train people to become good Democratic operatives," says John Marble, communications director for the National Stonewall Democrats. "Our goal is to place them locally ... or in campaigns around the country."
The group aims also to reach the straight voter as a potential ally. They have already reached one potentially important non-gay supporter: Patrick Murphy, a former prosecutor and suburban Philadelphia lawyer who just won the Democratic nomination in the 8th Congressional District, which serves Bucks County. Murphy will be a featured speaker at the convention. A 10-year captain in the U.S. Army and a constitutional law professor at West Point, he is one of the Band of Brothers ... Democratic Iraq War veterans running for Congress this year. He's also "very supportive of our community," says Marble. (Murphy's campaign office confirmed his appearance at the convention but did not offer other comments by press time.) Murphy, says Marble, "is one of our most eloquent candidates. And he has demonstrated ability to attract money, volunteers and votes."
The support of Band of Brothers members does not surprise Marble. "The majority of them support marriage equality," he says. "It's not their veteran status but their age demographic that governs that attitude." He compares this election to "the first election after Watergate," when power began to shift to a new generation of elected officials.
Nationally, Safier says, the Stonewall group is working with the Democratic National Committee in hopes of getting more openly LGBT delegates at the 2008 Democratic convention, and prompting the party to be louder on LGBT issues. "We'd like to see them take a better lead at defeating some of these anti-LGBT marriage amendments," says Safier, such as the effort in Pennsylvania's General Assembly to legislate a statewide vote to create a constitutional amendment saying marriage is legal only between a man and woman.
Fighting such divisive legislation, which uses the LGBT community as "scapegoats to distract the American people from failed Republican policies," will be part of Howard Dean's message on Sat., June 3, as the chairman of the DNC keynotes the convention, says DNC spokesperson Damien LaVera. Dean's speech is open to members of the public, who can reserve free tickets.
Fighting anti-same-sex marriage legislation nationwide will be the focus of strategy sessions run by LGBT leaders from the community's top national groups.
"We have to educate our legislators [that] LGBT people are their constituents," says Stacey Sobel, executive director of the Philadelphia-based statewide Center for Lesbian & Gay Civil Rights "They will gain votes if they take the position ... that the laws apply to everyone in their state," Sobel says.
And they must learn that they won't be in danger if, for instance, they vote against the constitutional-amendment legislation, she asserts, and that the opposite is true too ... that no legislator can guarantee himself continuing political employment just because he votes against LGBT rights. Eleven of the 13 Pennsylvania Republican House members who lost in their party's primary on May 16 were sponsors of the bill that aims to create the Commonwealth marriage amendment, she points out.
Not terribly long ago, the political life of a pro-gay-rights candidate was limited, recalls Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports the LGBT rights fight.
Rouse will be offering his own history as a lesson at the Stonewall conference. In Vermont, where Rouse lives, he helped get the legislature to allow civil unions for its gay residents in 2000. But the law sparked a Take Back Vermont movement, which helped defeat some of the pro-gay-rights lawmakers and recapture Vermont politics for the Republicans.
When a 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling allowed for gay marriage, Rouse was ready to take a different tack. Hired the next year as campaign director of MassEquality, which formed to preserve the ruling, he says, the group quickly decided that "What needed to happen was that the GLBT community and its allies need to build and flex muscle. If we can't protect court decisions in the legislature, what good are we?"
One strategy has worked, he reports: After Massachusetts lawmakers tried to legislate the Supreme Court ruling away, MassEquality made sure those legislators who voted for gay marriage were re-elected, and also helped get two marriage-equality opponents defeated.
There is a "need for our community ... to play political hardball to defend our equal rights," Rouse concludes. "We can't rely on political parties. We have to take action on our own with our allies."
At the Human Rights Campaign, they're pursuing that strategy across the country. In a few states where there are marriage rulings pending from courts, such as in New Jersey, the legislative rules make it very difficult for an amendment to pass. So the HRC is focusing on other states where the opposite is true: on Iowa and Washington state, for instance, where court rulings are pending; and on Oregon, where the legislature was one vote shy of approving civil unions. There, the HRC is trying to defeat the House speaker whose vote stopped the pro-LGBT-unions bill.
"Instead of fighting these ballot questions, which we seem always to lose, let's kill [them] in the legislature," says Rouse. "We've killed these bills in eight states already this year" ... West Virginia, Washington, New Hampshire, Iowa, Maryland, Alaska, Illinois and Minnesota.
Says Steel-City Stonewall co-chair Safier: "We'd like to see ... an openly LGBT caucus within the state party," who could help the state's Dems take a strong position against the amendment movement here.
Renee Gilinger is statewide director for Liberty PA Political Action Committee, an umbrella group for the state's Stonewall Democrats chapters. Liberty PA PAC will be leading the convention's efforts to canvass Pittsburgh on June 4. It hopes to hit 20,000 homes here by Election Day, venturing also throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs, and perhaps to Allentown.
While acknowledging that "we have this awful marriage amendment in the state House," she isn't certain that it will be the focus of the door-knocking campaign. That effort will concentrate on getting Rendell re-elected and Democratic senate nominee Bob Casey into Santorum's seat.
"I've found that there are a lot of misconceptions on where Bob Casey stands on LGBT issues," Sobel says. "He is for civil unions and non-discrimination in the workplace. He's great on LGBT rights."
With Rendell, she says, the group will be fighting an unusual but insidious foe: football. It's not just the Steelers fame of Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann. It's the Philly fandom of Rendell that's a problem, she says. "I heard from so many people who were upset that he still does post-game for the Eagles."
Conference: Fri., June 2-Sun., June 4, University of Pittsburgh campus, Oakland. See www.stonewalldemocrats.org/convention. For free tickets to the Dean speech only (conference attendance not required), see www.stonewalldemocrats.org/dean.