Last Friday night, 10 presidential hopefuls gathered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for the presidential forum on LGBTQ issues, hosted by GLAAD, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, The Advocate and One Iowa.
Per The Advocate‘s (highly recommended) summary of the Forum’s highlights, the 10 candidates included Former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Pennsylvania representative Joe Sestak, U.S Senator Elizabeth Warren, and author Marianne Williamson.
Who was notably absent? U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, former U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke and businessman Andrew Yang sat out the Forum.
“Pose” and “American Horror Story” star, producer and activist Angelica Ross presented opening remarks at the Forum.
The #LGBTQforum was so important and we will be sharing moments from it all weekend. ✌️
— GLAAD (@glaad) September 21, 2019
Ross underscored a theme of “resilience” as well as a broad spectrum of issues affecting LGBTQ Americans, framing the Trump administration (rightly) as a frequent target Forum participants would return to again and again.
Although all 10 Forum attendees provided wide-ranging statements of support for the LGBTQ+ community and myriad LGBTQ+ rights under present assault, I’ll highlight some common themes and attention-grabbing moments widely discussed in recent days, along with one key issue none of the candidates addressed adequately.
Post-Forum Recaps and Analyses: Biden, Harris’s Records Challenged
While GLAAD has provided the full Forum video on YouTube (beginning after 15:44, here), after-the-fact synopses and commentaries were consistent on a few main points.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, above all, made things awkward by getting into terse exchanges with moderator Lyz Lenz, both on- and off-camera.
The on-camera tension arose from Lenz’s questioning of Biden’s references to notoriously anti-LGBTQ Vice President Mike Pence as a “decent guy.”
As Vox explained of the exchange, Biden went on the defensive, then made an extremely uncomfortable, “condescending” comment to Lenz:
At the forum, Biden said that this was how one must speak when attempting to reach across the aisle “when you want to get things done.” When Lenz pushed back, saying Pence has not been decent to queer people, Biden responded, “You’re a lovely person.”
If the snarky “lovely person” remark wasn’t enough, Biden’s post-Forum comments, revealed via the writer herself on Twitter, surely worsened matters:
— Lyz a real sweetheart (@lyzl) September 21, 2019
Biden’s troubles went well beyond the optics of condescension. His past support for the 1994 crime bill (which brutally affected many LGBTQ people of color), the Defense of Marriage Act and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy banning out members of the military all were challenged, immediately before the “lovely” rejoinder, as the Des Moines Register reported.
The Register also pointed out Senator Kamala Harris‘s troubles defending her record, especially during her time as San Francisco District Attorney and, later, California Attorney General.
Sen. Harris explained her widely condemned policies on trans prisoners and criminal justice reform more broadly, asserting her “behind the scenes” efforts were ignored.
A January 2019 New York Times op-ed by University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon shed light on Harris’s record, one rather less “progressive” when compared to present Democratic priorities on criminal justice reform.
One scandal involved 600 convictions tainted by official misconduct during Harris’s tenure as San Francisco District Attorney. Another, while Attorney General, was more a pattern than a single issue: Harris’s stalwart prosecution and later defense of numerous cases later overturned as wrongful convictions.
Then there’s a pattern of what advocates have castigated as Sen. Harris’s history of denying trans prisoners’ basic rights.
Per Washington Blade reporting from this January, then-A.G. Harris’s office filed “a series of briefs” rejecting prisoners’ claims for trans-inclusive healthcare; even after California reversed its policy, though, “the California Department of Correction [maintained] a reputation for not fulfilling [an] agreement reached on behalf of transgender inmates.”
Zach Ford’s excellent post-Forum analysis from September 23 bluntly labeled this an “unconvincing” defense and sheer “hypocrisy,” pointing out this is the same explanation Harris used back in January 2019: She was simply performing her job, defending the State of California in court. Never mind her refusal to do the same during litigation over Prop. 8, the California referendum which banned gay marriage in the state in 2008.
Harris’s inability merely to acknowledge and then move on from damaging past priorities and policies at the Forum was disappointing, albeit consistent.
Mayor Pete’s Faith, Personal Experiences
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg took an opportunity to link the Forum with an historic milestone of personal significance. Again per The Advocate:
Buttigieg, who served in the Navy reserve, reminded the audience of the eighth anniversary of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal and promised to end President Trump’s ban on trans military service. The mayor also promised the sign the Equality Act and to appoint [officials and judges accordingly.]
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) September 21, 2019
As Zach Ford pointed out, however, despite Buttigieg’s “thoughtful essay” on the aforementioned subject (and modest momentum), his opening remarks and specific answers included several elisions and outright factually incorrect statements.
Buttigieg opened by saying that such a forum “would have been unimaginable as a part of the presidential election process just a few years ago.” Okay, well no. We actually had an LGBTQ presidential forum twelve years ago for the 2008 primary … [Then] when asked what he’d do as president [about the FDA’s anti-gay blood donor ban], he simply said he’d direct the FDA to “reevaluate” its current one-year policy. Reevaluate? That nonsense has no basis in science.
After Buttigieg’s “swipe at LGBTQ media last week,” he was already on the defensive for some self-inflicted scrutiny. Mayor Pete will have other opportunities to underscore his unique perspectives (his progressive faith and his not-uncommonly winding path to an out life), but Friday night’s opportunity was sadly missed.
Sen. Warren’s Poignant Start, Pivot to Congress
Finally, Senator Elizabeth Warren began in poignant form, reading the names of the 18 transgender women of color who have been murdered in 2019. As Warren powerfully declared, “It is time for a president of the United States of America to say their names.”
Like Ford, I found this to be the “most powerful moment in the entire forum” and a striking, meaningful use of Warren’s platform. Unlike her fellow candidates, Warren stood out by putting “the onus back on Congress to pass inclusive laws if the courts rule against LGBTQ equality.”
Grateful for the opportunity to be part of @GLAAD’s #LGBTQForum. In a Warren administration, LGBTQ+ people will be able to be who they are without fear of violence or discrimination. pic.twitter.com/alLKFFjXwa
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) September 21, 2019
It’s a crucial point, but Warren—like all nine other candidates on the Forum stage—still omitted one critical reality the Democrats have yet to confront, much less prepare for.
A Conspicuous Obstacle — and Glaring Omission: The U.S. Senate
Others have underlined the “disappointing rhetoric” of the candidates as a whole, such as The New Republic‘s Melissa Gira Grant. As Grant points out, the areas of agreement and commonality—such as universal, often ahead-of-the-curve support for gay marriage—”does not earn one the right to avoid tough questions on LGBTQ rights, especially given that those rights are .”
But the areas in which several candidates were forward looking, as in the case of legislative protections or court appointments, there is cause for concern.
Virtually all the Forum candidates emphasized legislative priorities and reversing the anti-LGBTQ turn of the federal judiciary. While these are worthy aims, no candidate admitted how challenging such efforts will be achieved post-2020 — blue wave or not. One of the foremost obstacles will be the U.S. Senate itself.
The U.S. Senate, currently with a narrow but solid Republican advantage, already is an oft-cited impediment to those pushing for President Trump’s impeachment.
It also is the chamber which generally was viewed as unlikely to flip to Democratic control in 2020. With a recently announced retirement of a GOP Senator and “insurgent” challenges to incumbents from further-right conservatives, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, among others, have called ongoing Republican control of the Senate into question.
The evidence is decidedly mixed, albeit hopeful. (See this from Axios, back in July, for a nuanced analysis, as well as the Cook Political Report’s latest Senate analysis). Either way, the structural advantages favoring Republicans in the Senate extend beyond 2020: The geographic distribution of partisans concentrates Democrats in fewer states, translating to fewer Senate opportunities, all else equal.
That’s not a prediction, and some of the researchers behind the best projections for 2018 electoral outcomes expect massive Democratic turnout next fall nationwide, likely to put Obama-to-Trump flipping states into contention, from Michigan and Wisconsin to Pennsylvania, among others. And, it must be said, several of the candidates discussed above have leveraged their platforms on behalf of aspiring Democratic senators in key battleground states already, such as Senator Warren’s marshaling of campaign resources against Maine’s incumbent GOP Senator Susan Collins, reported earlier today by The Daily Beast.
Still, the point is more general: Democrats, and leading Democratic presidential candidates especially, desperately need to articulate the how of their policy visions with these realities in mind.
Former President Obama’s use of executive orders proved susceptible to legal challenges throughout the last six years of his presidency, during which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) effectively thwarted most of Democrats’ legislative efforts.
A Senate still controlled by the GOP, or even a flipped Senate still containing several moderate/centrist Democratic Senators, is no guarantee of progress on LGBTQ+ rights or the other policies outlined so far on the campaign trail.
I readily admit I have no concrete solutions to offer; I only invite the candidates to acknowledge and plan for these possibilities. Democratic Party leaders and the staffs of the Party’s frontrunner presidential hopefuls have dwindling time to work on their own solutions — and they must, since every progressive or liberal reform across every issue area will run into broad structural challenges outlined above, no matter the course of impeachment or 2020 electoral results.
Passing laws and appointing judges which truly advance LGBTQ+ rights will require the assent of Congress, the Senate specifically. Democratic leaders and candidates need to acknowledge this reality candidly and provide a pragmatic strategy. With three former or current Senators leading the Democratic polls, no less, institutional knowledge and experience must be brought to bear.
But make no mistake: Any promises made to LGBTQ+ Americans, no matter how earnest and well-intentioned, are empty so long as Democrats ignore this obstacle.