Metro Weekly

Vice presidential candidates debate, but barely mention LGBT issues

Debate watchers express frustration over lack of questions around Indiana's RFRA and other LGBT issues

Tim Kaine (left) and Mike Pence debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. - Photo: The Guardian.
Tim Kaine (left) and Mike Pence debate at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. – Photo: The Guardian.

LGBT issues were lost in the crossfire during Tuesday’s vice presidential debate.

V.P. candidates Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) met at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., for the sole vice presidential debate of this cycle. They clashed on a number of issues, often talking over or interrupting each other as they sought to tear down the other’s running mate.

But LGBT issues were ignored almost entirely, with Kaine only making brief allusions to LGBT rights, as when he criticized Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for his closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has cracked down on LGBT people in his country.

Almost immediately after the debate, Twitter users slammed the lack of LGBT coverage, with some almost apoplectic at the missed opportunity to discuss things like same-sex marriage, nondiscrimination, or Pence’s support for his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was similarly surprised none of the topics came up in the course of the debate.

“Mike Pence is really famous for having pushed the most aggressive pro-LGBT-discrimination bill in the country, having to really embarrassingly walk it back,” Maddow said. “When he was in Congress, he said that HIV and AIDS funding should not be disbursed unless it was also spent — federal dollars — spent to try to cure people from being gay. I mean, he’s got a really, really, really radical position and history and current positions on gay issues. It didn’t come up at all.”

Asked by MSNBC Republican analyst Nicole Wallace why the topic was never raised, Maddow pointed to the fact that social issues were only brought up in the last three minutes of the debate, leaving not enough time for the vice presidential candidates to engage on the issue.

That’s a sentiment shared by Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans.

“[Moderator Elaine] Quijano seemed woefully underprepared, and asked an absolutely abysmal question of the two, where she basically let them set the parameters for social issues,” says Angelo. “She was clearly trying to bait Kaine into talking about abortion, and Pence about RFRA. Instead, Kaine used it as an opportunity to talk about his support for capital punishment for murderers, and Pence used it as an opportunity to talk about adoption for children without homes, both positions that most Americans would wholeheartedly agree with.”

Angelo had expected Kaine to bring up Pence’s support for RFRA — which critics say allows discrimination against LGBT people under the guise of religion — in order to solidify uncommitted millennial voters’ support behind the Clinton-Kaine ticket. But Kaine failed to address that issue, while Pence, perhaps wisely, avoided it.

“The lack of mention of LGBT issues in the debate was completely the fault of the moderator and Tim Kaine,” Angelo says.

Charles Bright, the northern region director at the Virginia Young Democrats, says he personally felt that Kaine missed an opportunity to knock Pence off his game in the debate by not bringing up the RFRA law.

“I was really surprised Kaine didn’t go after it. I think he would have, but he was keeping his attacks focused on the top of the ticket, trying to make Pence defend Trump’s outrageous comments,” he says.

“But Pence was the first one to go after Kaine’s personal record, saying he left Virginia $2 billion in the hole. That was a perfect chance for him to go after Pence on the ‘religious freedom’ law that he signed in the middle of the night, surrounded by a bunch of nuns and hardcore religious people, which killed him in Indiana,” Bright says. “Pence is not popular in Indiana, and this was a perfect thing to go after him on, saying, ‘Hey, even if you think this guy is acceptable, here is what he thinks.’ I was surprised, and a little disappointed, that it didn’t come up.”

Aisha Moodie-Mills, the president and CEO of the Victory Fund, expressed disappointment that LGBT issues were given short shrift, and that Quijano never questioned Pence about his record. 

“Mike Pence has made a career of singling out LGBT people for discrimination, and it is disappointing tonight‘s debate did not address his long record of using public office to advance his backward views,” Moodie-Mills said in a statement. “Pence opposes recognition of our relationships, opposes LGBT soldiers serving openly in the military, and opposes prohibiting restaurants and other businesses from refusing service to LGBT customers. It is important the Trump campaign’s extremist anti-LGBT positions be exposed in future debates — along with its attacks on women, immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, and veterans recovering from war. Their entire campaign has been built on fear and bigotry, and we believe voters will reject their attempts to turn back the clock on progress.”

“Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, has made anti-LGBTQ activism the cornerstone of his political career,” Jay Brown, the communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “That was worthy of debate and discussion, but there wasn’t a single question about his hateful views. The vast majority of fair-minded voters in this country deserve answers, and unfortunately the debate was a missed opportunity to demand them.”

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