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Gay Republicans Say 2004 Is No 2000

What a difference four years makes.

At the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, gay Republicans eagerly seconded the presidential nomination of George W. Bush, a “compassionate conservative” who earlier that year had held a meeting in Austin, Texas, with 12 gay leaders — a landmark for a community that had largely been shunned by previous nominees.

In Philadelphia, many gay Republicans felt like they had finally left the party’s fringe and moved inside the “big tent.” Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who is gay, got a key speaking slot, and the party co-sponsored gay-related events. GOP strategist Mary Matalin headlined a buoyant gay Republican reception atop a Philadelphia skyscraper.

But at this year’s convention, the mood among gay Republicans is at best disappointed and at worst outraged.

Gay Republicans interviewed Sunday at a Log Cabin Republicans reception at the Bryant Park Grill said while they still support President Bush — on foreign and economic policy — they deplore his push to enact a constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage. They also criticized anti-gay elements in this year’s Republican platform.

“I feel discouraged and betrayed,” said Daniel Stewart, the mayor of Plattsburgh, N.Y., who was one of the so-called Austin 12. “The constitutional amendment is a slap in the face.”

Brian Bennett, another Austin 12 member who was an aide to former Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) before going public about his homosexuality, said the mood is “completely different” than it was in Philadelphia. “We were welcomed in 2000,” he said. “We’ve been ignored in 2004.”

Bush’s endorsement of the constitutional amendment, Bennett said, “has unleashed the forces of hatred and intolerance that had been kept under wraps in 2000 and for the first few years of his presidency. For cynical purposes, he has turned his back on the gay community.”

While this year’s Bryant Park party featured speeches by moderates like New York Gov. George Pataki (R), New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the festive setting was undercut by the frustrations expressed by many attendees.

On Tuesday, Log Cabin officials will unveil a 30-second ad designed to be “an aggressive counterattack against the radical right which has hijacked the GOP,” executive director Patrick Guerriero said in a statement.

The ad is running on local and cable television channels in New York to target Republican delegates. It features pictures of religious and conservative leaders such as Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell, along with a photo of a protester holding a sign that reads “God Hates Fags.” An announcer intones, “Will we divide the American family with the politics of intolerance and fear that only lead to hate?”

Guerriero said the platform was “the final straw.” “If you remain silent while people are kicking you in the stomach, you become completely irrelevant,” he said on Monday.

“The tension that the president has caused in this party makes it difficult for gay Republicans to feel comfortable,” said Karen Cookston, the Columbus, Ohio, chapter president of Log Cabin Republicans, and a national board member.

In his remarks to reporters Sunday, Chris Barron, the Log Cabin political director, lashed out at the GOP platform.

“There’s a disconnect between the outrageous language in the platform and the faces of inclusion in the prime-time lineup,” he said, referring to high-profile speeches to be given by such moderate Republicans as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Pataki. “The party has to make a choice. It can’t have it both ways.”

Log Cabin board member Brian Ballard added that many gay voters, including gay Republicans, worry that a Bush victory could be “taken by the far right as vindication” of hard-edged social conservatism.

But not everyone at the reception agreed with the hard line taken by many Log Cabin officials.

“For me, the mood is mostly celebration” rather than anger at the Bush administration, said one gay Republican from the South. “I think the focus needs to be on the big picture — on maximizing our party’s success in November.”

Other gay Republicans added that they take solace in the fact that Republicans in the Northeast and especially New York state are sympathetic to gay issues. “The good thing is that we have elected officials — Pataki, Bloomberg, Schwarzenegger and others — who have been very supportive,” said Kevin Bartnett of Westchester County, N.Y.

Jim Maisano, a Westchester County legislator, said that where he comes from, being a pro-gay Republican is not problematic at all. In fact, Maisano said he improved his winning margin after promoting local laws on domestic partnership and human rights. Democrats crossed party lines in large numbers to vote for him, he said.

A number of Log Cabin Republicans said that, despite their deep anger with his record on gay issues, they would continue to vote for the president.

But Carl Schmid, another member of the Austin 12, added that the people attending Sunday’s reception are a select group of party activists, and as such, “it’s hard for us to say, ‘Vote Democratic.’” Where the GOP stands to lose votes, he said, is “among friends and families” of gay and lesbian voters — a much wider circle of potential Bush voters.

Former Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), who is gay, said last week that because more Americans are accepting gays into their lives, “We are witnessing what is very likely the last or next-to-last national convention where issues like this have the prominence they do. … At some point in the future, the Republican Party will come to terms with the issue.”

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