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In San Francisco, John Kerry feels the pressure

Just days after he said he supported a constitutional ban on gay marriage in his home state of Massachusetts, Sen. John Kerry, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, told a group of gay and lesbian supporters that he would support federal recognition of gay marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships.

Kerry said that, if elected president in November, he would introduce legislation giving same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals, including the right to file joint income tax returns, collect social-security survivor benefits, and bring their foreign partners into the country, as long as their unions are recognized by the states where they live.

The federal benefits would be called civil unions, not marriage, but would be triggered only by an individual state’s recognition of a gay relationship, regardless of what that state calls it.

“For the first time in our history we have somebody who will be the Democratic presidential nominee speaking in favor of full and equal protection for same-sex couples,” said Mark Leno, an out gay state assemblyman who represents San Francisco and is a Kerry supporter.

Kerry’s statement was made to Leno, Jeff Anderson, and Jeff Soukup, at a at a San Francisco fundraiser last Friday which the three men helped co-host. Long time gay activist David Mixner, who is a friend of Kerry’s, confirmed the statement in a telephone conversation with the candidate the following day.

Kerry’s position on gay unions has consistently been that he is opposed to gay marriage, but supports civil unions and domestic partnerships that give gays and lesbians the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. He has frequently said he is opposed to a federal constitutional amendment and that the matter should be left to the states.

Massachusetts is expected to begin legal gay marriages on May 17 under the terms of a landmark ruling by that state’s high last November. Among the other states, however, only Vermont, California, Hawaii, and New Jersey currently have laws that provide for civil unions or domestic partnerships. These four states offer same-sex couples varying degrees of parity with married heterosexuals. So as things stand today, Kerry’s proposal would apply only to people with recognized unions in those states.

As the national debate on gay marriage has exploded in recent weeks, Kerry has teetered back and forth. He has refused to make a distinction between civil and religious marriages, telling National Public Radio several weeks ago that “…marriage to many people is obviously what is sanctified by a church. It’s sacramental.” In the same interview he even seemed to shrink away from his position against a federal constitutional amendment. But the next day, his campaign issued statements reaffirming his opposition to a federal amendment.

Kerry’s statement in San Francisco came in response to a wave of disaffection from the gay community after he weighed in last Wednesday on the debate raging among legislators in Massachusetts about whether to seek a referendum on a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage there. Kerry said that he would support such a ban as long as it simultaneously enacted civil unions.

Stanford law professor Tobias Wolff, who specializes in gay and lesbian legal issues, warned that Kerry might be hard pressed as president to fulfill his promise. Wolff said he would have to move legislation through Congress to repeal major sections of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act––including the provision denying federal recognition of same-sex marriages enacted in any jurisdiction. Another major provision of DOMA, the right of states to similarly deny recognition to same-sex marriages enacted elsewhere, could create havoc should one partner in a couple seek to gain advantage in a divorce or child support case by challenging the legality of the union in a state without any partner recognition law.

The genesis of the federal recognition plan came in a conference call among approximately 20 of Kerry’s campaign leaders and gay supporters last Thursday, one day after the candidate told the Boston Globe he would support some form of marriage ban in the Massachusetts constitution, according to Anderson and Soukup.

The following evening at a fundraiser at San Francisco’s luxurious Mark Hopkins Hotel, Kerry was buttonholed by several of his biggest local gay supporters, including Anderson, Soukup, and Leno. The guest list at the party read like a Who’s Who of local gay and lesbian politics––philanthro­pist and former Ambassador James Hormel, Roberta Achtenberg, a top Clinton administration housing official, and Susan Leal, the city’s out lesbian treasurer.

Anderson and Soukup, who are a couple, have supported Kerry through thick and thin for a year, hosting three big-dollar fundraisers in their home and traveling to New Hampshire and Iowa to work as volunteers.

At the party, Kerry told Soukup, a former Bill Bradley staffer, that he would support the idea. He made the same comments to Leno. The following day, Mixner called the candidate to confirm his commitment.

The Kerry campaign appeared eager on Wednesday to downplay the significance of the senator’s comments. Elmendorf, said that his position shouldn’t be news since its substance was contained in Kerry’s response to a questionnaire from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) last July. But the language in the questionnaire is different than the statements Kerry made last week. In response to the HRC, Kerry did not address immigration rights, nor did he indicate an affirmative intention to introduce legislation.

Kerry spokesperson Stephanie Cutter said that the campaign does not plan any special announcement of Kerry’s plans.

Mixner, even while expressing disappointment with Kerry’s support for a constitutional amendment in Massachusetts, insisted the Democrat is a strong supporter of gay rights. He cited Kerry’s opposition to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. In 1993, Kerry testified against it in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 1996, he called the federal Defense of Marriage Act “gay bashing,” and voted against it.

“The gay community won’t agree with him 100 percent of the time,” Mixner conceded.

“There is every reason we should be supporting him full throttle,” insisted Leno.

But on the stump, Kerry has generally attempted to steer the agenda to other issues. At a campaign appearance across San Francisco Bay in Oakland later the same night that he made his statements to Leno, Anderson, and Soukup, Kerry delivered his standard 30-minute stump speech. Yet, for one of the first times, he inserted mention of George W. Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment, saying that the president should try to unify the country, not divide it, “by putting a constitutional amendment in front of them.”

The reference took up about five seconds of his 30-minute talk, but much the same language was used as a centerpiece of his victory speech after the Super Tuesday primaries this week.

As he gears up for the fall campaign, Kerry may not be able to escape the immediacy of the same-sex marriage issue. Dressed in a dark suit, green tie, and a western belt, Kerry ceremoniously took off his suit jacket and spoke to the Oakland crowd numbering several hundred, mainly from local labor unions, in a teamster’s union hall. Outside, about 1,200 local supporters, many wearing “Freedom to Marry” stickers next to their “Kerry for President” buttons were left in the cold when the fire marshal said the building was already over-capacity.

The question facing Kerry is whether he can contain the divergent wishes of supporters sporting both buttons. As the same-sex marriage brushfire spreads from San Francisco to upstate New York and now to Portland, Oregon, Kerry may increasingly appear behind the curve in the eyes of gay and lesbian voters.

Elmendorf disagrees.

“The difference between the two candidates is so clear,” he said, “[Kerry and the gay community] can disagree on gay marriage. But people in the community view Kerry as 90 percent with them and George Bush as 90 percent against them. I don’t think they’re going to let the ten percent where they disagree get in the way.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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