It was the endorsement heard around the world, when the Human Rights Campaign threw its support behind Republican Senator Mark Kirk’s re-election bid.
On paper, HRC’s endorsement was not unexpected. Kirk, during his tenure in the upper chamber, has come out in support of marriage equality, voted to repeal the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, is in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and supports the Equality Act — a sweeping bill that would amend the Civil Rights Act to include employment, housing and public accommodations protections for LGBT people.
But the endorsement was met with a barrage of criticism from LGBT activists, Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups, and many online commenters. Some balked at the idea of supporting a Republican senator, given the lack of stated support for LGBT rights in the GOP’s party platform. Others were upset at what they perceived as the snubbing of Kirk’s general election opponent, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D), who enjoys a 100 percent rating on HRC’s congressional scorecard for her support of LGBT rights — Kirk’s is 78 percent.
David Nir, of liberal online blog DailyKos, called the Kirk endorsement “shameful” and “as appalling as it is embarrassing.” Slate‘s Mark Joseph Stern called it “unbelievably obtuse,” even as he praised HRC for “attempting to play the long game.” Online activists flooded HRC’s Facebook page, posting negative comments and reviews. And prominent LGBT activist Michelangelo Signorile penned a column for The Huffington Post alleging that HRC’s support of Kirk is enabling Republicans to keep control of the Senate.
“The simple truth is that in 2016 in Illinois we don’t need Mark Kirk — he needs us,” wrote Signorile. “Kirk is in a deep blue state and he absolutely must support full LGBT equality in order to win. His coming out for the Equality Act is not brave; it’s about his own survival. And the first vote he’ll take upon being re-elected will be a cowardly one to make the anti-gay [Mitch] McConnell (with an HRC score of 0) the Senate Majority leader again.”
But HRC has defended their actions, noting that Republican support is essential to passing any bill in Congress, regardless of which party controls the Senate.
“We don’t win by kicking pro-equality officials out of office. Everyone knows we need 60 votes to get any bill through the Senate and that requires at least some supportive Republicans to vote with us,” JoDee Winterhof, HRC’s senior vice president of policy and political affairs, said in a statement. “So when members of Congress vote the right way and stand up for equality — regardless of party — we have to stand with them or lose.”
Lane Hudson, an LGBT and Democratic activist who previously worked for HRC, believes that people who have already been critical of HRC in the past are using the Kirk endorsement to revisit previous criticisms and grievances. He also says that HRC has an impetus to maintain its working relationships with Republicans in order to ensure that their priorities can gain traction, or at least a sympathetic ear, in Congress.
“HRC has to maintain its credibility on the Hill, working on both sides of the aisle,” Hudson says. “And they already get enough flack for being nothing more than a Democratic Party organization. That’s how conservative gays see them, so they definitely have pressure from both sides to be fair, and when they can find fair-minded Republicans, to support them.
“I don’t like [the endorsement], but I understand why they did it,” he adds. “Because how are they supposed to get Republicans to vote their way if they screw over every Republican that votes their way?”
Hudson also says there’s somewhat of an expectation placed on Duckworth and other Democrats that they’ll continue to support LGBT rights regardless of whether they receive an endorsement, since support for LGBT rights is a principle that rank-and-file Democrats believe in and part of the party’s platform.
Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, is proud to see HRC’s endorsement of Kirk, and his fellow Illinois Republican, U.S. Rep. Bob Dold, both of whom face challenging reelection campaigns. But he also said he was “appalled” to see many on the LGBT political left attacking HRC and its president, Chad Griffin, for the endorsement of Kirk, whom Angelo called a leader on LGBT rights.
“We would have never had a floor vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2013 had Sen. Kirk not so valiantly fought to make it so, had he not returned, after having a stroke, to the floor of the United States Senate, to speak on behalf of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” says Angelo. “It took every ounce of strength in his body to do that.”
There is a fallacy in the argument that the only way to see pro-LGBT legislation pass Congress is by electing more Democrats, Angelo says. As an example, he points to the 111th Congress, from 2009 to 2010, when Democrats controlled the House, Senate and presidency, yet managed to pass almost no pro-LGBT legislation during that time.
“In fact, the only pro-LGBT movement that came out of that Congress was the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ which was precipitated by the Log Cabin Republicans’ court case challenging the constitutionality of that anti-gay law signed by President Bill Clinton,” says Angelo. “So I think there needs to be a lot of soul-searching on the LGBT left to ultimately see the light and understand that if you want true and full equality in this country, you need to not only work with Republicans, but endorse the good ones as well.”
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