Eric Bauman was right. The openly gay chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and vice president of the California Democratic Party predicted that the much-hyped “red wave” of Republican wins that washed across the country Election Night would stop at California’s border.
At his news conference the next day, President Obama grimly acknowledged that he took a “shellacking.” Many pundits pontificated on how the state and national elections were essentially a referendum on Obama and the even less popular Democratic Congress—despite such “big ticket” items as saving the nation from another Great Depression, saving the auto industry and banking system, passing a healthcare reform bill and stimulus package and appointing two women to the U.S. Supreme Court. New York Times columnist Frank Rich calls Obama “the Rodney Dangerfield of 2010” who gets no respect.
But with the knee-capped economy, high unemployment and the twin palls of a massive debt and deficit—the sheen was off Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After 20 months in office, the one-time thrill of Obama inspiration had curdled into a memory that fed a smoldering anger at promises unfulfilled. Voters felt it was time for a third “change election.”
That made it incredibly hard for Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s re-election—though she eventually trounced former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, a Tea Party favorite with millions in GOP backing. Boxer’s knockout punch was a TV ad that portrayed Fiorina as happy to have sent jobs overseas.
Jerry Brown, the quixotic Attorney General who refused to defend Prop. 8 in either state or federal court, was elected as California’s first governor who fully supports marriage equality. And once again, California proved that a billionaire like former eBay CEO and GOP candidate Meg Whitman can be stopped from buying an election for $160 million by the accumulation of single votes, many presumably from non-billionaires sympathetic to the undocumented Latina family housekeeper Whitman cruelly fired and wished deported. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom—internationally renown for granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004 as an act of civil disobedience against laws he considers unconstitutional—won the race for lieutenant governor over Republican Latino candidate Abel Maldenado, who supported Prop. 8 and harsh immigration laws. It says something that Newsom was endorsed by the important Latino publication La Opinión.
The critical race for attorney general is still too close to call. As Frontiers goes to press, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris is trailing L.A. DA Steve Cooley by 0.1 percent. Both have already declared victory. Harris’s campaign is counting on the thousands of outstanding vote-by-mail and provisional ballots still to be processed in L.A. County to break her way.
Nonetheless, looking across the California landscape, Equality California Executive Director Geoff Kors declared the state elections a “sweep” for pro-equality candidates.
Particularly sweet—especially considering an ugly success in defeating pro-equality judges in Iowa—was the defeat of National Organization for Marriage candidates statewide—especially assembly candidate Andy Pugno, the author of both anti-gay marriage initiatives Prop. 8 in 2008 and Prop. 22 in 2000. EQCA made that a top-priority race and had a significant field operation to help strong pro-equality candidate Dr. Richard Pan win in the heavily Republican district.
“We really saw the tide turn as voters rejected NOM in that race and throughout California,” said Kors.
Kors thinks the pro-equality sweep sends a message to the candidates not to be “wishy-washy” about equality, including President Obama. “Voters want politicians to stand for something and be principled and then organizations have to do the hard work to make sure those people get elected.”
Kors noted that California will now have seven openly LGBT elected officials in the state legislature—Toni Atkins, Rich Gordon and Ricardo Lara will be joining Speaker John A. Pérez, Christine Kehoe, Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano when they are sworn in on Dec. 6. Also, openly gay deputy assessor John Noguez won the job of L.A.’s county assessor.
Kors said the election of transgender lawyer Vickie Kolakowski to the Alameda Superior Court was a “Harvey Milk moment” that will send a message to the nation and “will inspire so many youth to realize they can live their dreams.” It was, Kors said, “a really powerful victory.”
“Honorary lesbian” Betsy Butler also won her assembly race—but unfortunately, openly gay Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet lost his congressional campaign to defeat Republican Mary Bono Mack.
But anger, fear and uncertainty still clutch at the heart of LGBT people as they look beyond California. With Republicans having a new majority in the House in advance of the congressional redistricting that follows the new census, LGBTs wonder in what image will the country be re-drawn?
And who’s handling the budget crisis? On Nov. 11, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special session of the legislature to wrestle with the $6.1 billion current-year deficit. Leading the effort to preserve social services and HIV funding is openly gay Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez. But they then must focus on the state legislative analyst’s Nov. 10 forecast of California’s General Fund revenues and expenditures, which indicates that there is a budget problem of $25.4 billion between now and the time the Legislature enacts a 2011-12 state budget plan.
Phill Wilson, founder and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, notes that “the new Republican majority campaigned on a platform of reducing federal spending on discretionary programs, such as the Ryan White CARE Act, the HIV prevention program at CDC and substance abuse and mental health services for people living with HIV.”
However, Wilson sees a silver lining, remembering that AIDS advocates re-doubled their efforts after the Republicans swept the House in 1994. This year’s elections could provide an opportunity to educate new Republican congressional leaders in the South, “the region where HIV/AIDS rates among black people are rising the fastest. It is vital that we help new Congressional leaders from the South understand what the epidemic is doing to their districts and work together to devise new solutions to these challenges,” Wilson wrote in a newsletter to supporters.
But as some of the smartest people in the room pointed out at a post-2010 election panel discussion moderated by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart at the Williams Institute on Nov. 10, there is considerable anger and confusion among LGBT people who feel increasingly more left behind, if not thrown under the bus and repeatedly run over.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center think tank that studies issues around gays in the military, outlined the current situation with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and concluded by saying, “Bottom line: I have no idea what’s going on.”
Mara Keisling, Executive Director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, expressed extreme frustration and concern that the LGBT community was so focused on the big issues such as DADT, ENDA and DOMA, which have “zero chance”—at the expense of less obvious but still important and achievable measures such as changing passport regulations for transgenders.
Gary Gates, the Williams Distinguished Scholar who does so much of the critical demographical research, did a whole presentation about how smaller non-legislative initiatives and regulatory changes can be handled without much money or ire from anti-gay activists. For instance, the new census data will be posted on the government’s portal site with new demographic information about same-sex couples, such as how many have children and the region in which they live. Already HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) has “changed the definition of what a family is” so it’s no longer based on blood or marriage. Additionally, asking questions in government surveys about same-sex couples “is becoming much more routine.”
Gates also said LGBTs shouldn’t “over-read” the exit polls that showed 31 percent of self-identified gays, lesbians and bisexuals voted Republican in the midterm elections. It shows that the “gay population isn’t immune to the messages” that cause the Republican wave in the first place.
Robin Brand, Deputy Executive Director at the Victory Fund, said she thinks the LGBT community will experience a “backlash over the success of the last three years.” But she’s equally optimistic about seeing how many new LGBT leaders have been elected, especially in state offices. Some states and cities are where the focus will probably shift with nothing happening at the federal level.
But it was the mild-mannered-appearing attorney David Codell, an expert on Prop. 8 and marriage equality, who encapsulated the anger felt by thousands of LGBTs at this moment in history.
“With respect to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ with respect to the federal DOMA, with respect to the federal government’s denial of benefits [to] gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender employees—what we’re seeing is the federal government actively discriminating against us and that is a unifying thing that should infuriate all of us. And as you look, even at, for example, President Obama and the Justice Department’s decision in case after case—’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ DOMA, employee benefits cases—their decision to defend those laws—we have to understand—the federal government is today our community’s greatest enemy. It is the chief [discriminator] against us, and President Obama—whether he likes it or not—is the [discriminator]-in-chief in this country,” Codell said. “And our community needs to stand up and be furious that the federal government is discriminating against us—actively. President Obama needs to express more absolute repulsion at the fact that his job requires him to discriminate shamelessly against us. He really, in my view, needs to be more of a moral voice and our community should really rally around the fact that the federal government should not be doing that to us.”
Unfortunately, many LGBTs are also exhausted from being so angry for so long with so little relief. This may be a critical tipping point for the LGBT community.