Democrats agree on topics except for marriage

The crowd gathered in Hollywood on Thursday for a first-of-its-kind Democratic presidential forum on gay issues could barely contain its excitement at the milestone. They cheered. They gave standing ovations — even to the longshots.

But the elephant in the room — in this case, a hip, comfortable living room set of earth tone carpet and olive green sofa and chairs — was still gay marriage, and the fact that none of the leading contenders support it.

The occasion was a two-hour forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and Viacom’s Logo, which covered the event live and streamed it on its website. Although it was the third forum in a week for the Democratic field, the event was viewed as ground-breaking for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

In one-by-one sessions that had all the trappings of a daytime talk show, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson each tried to mix eloquence and poignance in highlighting their support of civil unions and equal benefits for same-sex couples. But only Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel support marriage per se, and they drew some of the loudest cheers of the evening.

That fact was not lost on HRC President Joe Solmonese, who afterward released a statement saying, “While we heard very strong commitments to civil unions and equality in federal rights and benefits, their reasons for opposing equality in civil marriage tonight became even less clear.”

Yet for many in the studio audience of gay leaders, community activists and entertainment insiders, there was a sense of excitement over the mere fact that so many in the field of contenders showed up. (Citing scheduling conflicts, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd did not attend). As one donor noted, it wasn’t too long ago that candidates would return their money.

There also was hope that the 2008 race won’t be a replay of 2004, when gay issues became a wedge issue that drove many religious conservatives to the polls.

Among those who attended were actor Neil Patrick Harris, producer Bruce Cohen, “Will & Grace” co-creator Max Mutchnick, entrepreneur Skip Paul and actress Jane Lynch. Also present were Los Angeles city councilman Bill Rosendahl, West Hollywood mayor John Duran, state Assemblyman Mike Feuer and producer Steve Bing.

As friendly as the crowd was, moderator Margaret Carlson and panelists Melissa Etheridge, Washington Post editorial page writer Jonathan Capehart and Solmonese pressed each contender even to some cringe-provoking moments.

In contrast to other forums, where candidates are lined up on stage together, each candidate was given 20 minutes of individual, one-on-one “conversations” with the panel. The result elevated the event to more than mere sound bytes.

As such, all of the candidates all but pleaded their bonafides. Outside of marriage, all agree on a host of issues across the board, including the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and equality in health benefits for same-sex partners. Obama noted that he didn’t “just talk about these issues where it’s convenient,” citing his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, and speeches where he has emphased gay rights issues before groups of black ministers. He does support the repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages that are legal in individual states.

When Carlson asked if civil unions were a “lesser thing” than gay marriage, Obama said, “Well, you know, as I’ve proposed it, it wouldn’t be a lesser thing, from my perspective. And look, semantics may be important to some. From my perspective, what I’m interested in is making sure that those legal rights are available to people.”

Edwards cited a host of issues that he supports, such as teaching about gay and lesbian families in public schools. He vowed to try to rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” even if that meant overruling military leaders.

And although he once said that he opposed gay marriage for religious reasons, he admitted on Thursday, “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I will not impose my faith belief on the American people,” he said. “I don’t believe any president should do that.”

Clinton, meanwhile, pointed out her efforts in defeating the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004. “We were very clear about what we needed to do to get the votes in order to prevent this mean-spirited, divisive effort,” she said. She was quick to say that she wouldn’t appoint any judges to the bench with anti-gay records.

But in one of the more notable moments of the evening, Etheridge noted that when Clinton’s husband was elected, “we were very, very hopeful, and in the years that followed, our hearts were broken. We were thrown under the bus.”

“I don’t see it quite the way that you describe, but I respect your feeling about it,” said Clinton, adding that her husband’s administration made an “honest effort” to try to “keep the momentum going.”

Richardson made a pragmatic pitch, emphasizing his efforts in preventing gay marriage bans from passing in New Mexico and in pushing for gay rights measures in the state.

But he made the evening’s major gaffe when he was asked whether homosexuality was a matter of biology or a choice.

“It’s a choice,” he said. Some audience members gasped when he said it.

The campaign later issues a clarification, in which Richardson said, “I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice.”

In highlighting the importance of the event, organizers cited research showing greater acceptance of civil unions and other gay issues. But it’s still uncertain what impact an endorsement from the gay community has on broader electoral support. And even some of the biggest boosters of the major candidates say they are more than willing to overlook disagreements on marriage. After all, Republicans were invited to the forum, but declined, and Gravel and Kucinich are huge longshots.

Comfortably reclined in his chair, Gravel noted, “They’re not going to lose any votes over not being for marriage, whatever their excuses are. This is costing votes for us. I don’t care.”

Kucinich sounded a similar theme. In summarizing why he isn’t opposed to gay marriage, he said, “To me — who cares? — it really doesn’t matter.”

After the event was over, most of the candidates fanned out to fund-raising events at various West Hollywood nightclubs, and invoked the broader themes of their campaigns.

At the landmark The Abbey, unofficial ground zero of Los Angeles’ gay community, Clinton spoke to a sometimes raucous room, as supporters like former Governor Gray Davis looked on.

“The difference between our two parties could not be clearer,” said Clinton, alluding to a host of issues including gay rights and the war in Iraq.

Several blocks away, at Area Nightclub, Obama defended his pledge, made during the recent YouTube debate, to sit down with any world leader. Clinton had criticized him for making such a statement, calling it “naïve.”

“I am not scared of losing a propaganda war to any dictator, and I’m not afraid to sit down with anybody.”

In the crowd at the event, organized in part by the industry group 008 The Movement, were Zach Braff, Seth Green, Eric Mabius, Donald Faison, Scott Speedman, Bill Bellamy, Ashley Scott and Paris Barclay.

Just a few doors away, Edwards spoke to a packed house of donors who ponied up $15-per-person for an event billed as “Small Change for Big Change.”

He largely turned his rhetoric on the Bush adminstration.

“I saw Cheney on TV the other night talking about how great this $20 billion deal with the Saudis is. Do you really need to know anything more to know you’re against it?”

For more, go to www.wilshireandwashington.com.

(Elsa Bertet, Pamela McClintock and Stewart Scott contributed to this report.)

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