Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat considered one of the nation’s most outspoken gay leaders, blasted Mayor Michael Bloomberg on March 7, saying, “What he did was terrible for us,” when asked about the city’s decision to appeal a state judge’s ruling ordering the city to provide marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Frank spoke before a crowd of several hundred at a gay professionals’ meeting at Manhattan’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.
Introduced by author Charles Kaiser as an “indispensable gay citizen,” Frank, in short order, weighed in on issues that have recently dominated the news, including the 2004 presidential election, same-sex marriage and fears of a new virulent strain of HIV.
On the Bloomberg administration’s decision to appeal the Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan’s February 4 pro-gay marriage ruling, Frank seemed to speak most forcefully.
“There’s always fear. The anti’s make insidious predictions as they did around race, sex and disability,” said Frank about earlier battles over federal legislation protecting minority rights. “The best way to win same-sex marriage—through the courts and politically—is when you’re defending a reality. That’s where Bloomberg undermined us.”
Frank, a veteran political strategist not unknown for his sharp partisanship, explained that had Bloomberg not appealed the marriage decision, the city would have had the experience of thousands of gays and lesbians married by the time the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, finally resolved the issue.
Bloomberg, a first-term Republican with an eye on November’s re-election effort, has said that privately he supports same-sex marriage, but that either the Court of Appeals or the Legislature must ultimately resolve the issue. Bloomberg asked for an expedited ruling from the Court of Appeals, but it is unclear when the seven-member court will actually review the matter.
In a mayoral contest where the prospective Democratic nominees will heavily stump for the gay vote, the timing of a high court decision on marriage is laden with political importance. Frank said that Bloomberg “dealt us this serious blow,” because he has a Republican primary to get through before facing a Democrat in November.
At Monday night’s meeting of Out Professionals, a networking group, Frank dismissed the mayor’s assertion that the city’s appeal will expedite a resolution of the same-sex marriage controversy as disingenuous, asserting that any of several cases pending statewide could be the first to reach the Court of Appeals.
Frank’s comments are particularly significant in light of the fact that while he applauded his own state’s move to gay marriage, that resulted from a November 2003 ruling by the Massachusetts high court, he was harshly critical of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom when he ordered city hall officials to issue same-sex marriage licenses last February, saying it was a political sideshow without basis in either state legislative or court action. In August, the California Supreme Court invalidated roughly 4,000 gay and lesbian marriages.
On Monday night in New York, Frank defended his criticism of Newsom, saying that the high courts actions made a mockery of the marriages. Frank said Newsom asked him for his advice prior to issuing the licenses and that Newsom told the press that Frank disagreed with him. The congressman did not initially go public about his misgivings until Newsom cited him.
“We were about to get marriage in Massachusetts,” Frank said. “We knew that once it went into effect, people would say it was no big deal. We were telling Governor Romney to follow the law,” while Newsom’s actions were, in his mind, extra-legal.
“Civil disobedience should be used as a strategy, not for the hell of it or to make you feel better,” Frank asserted.
While Frank was also critical of New Paltz Mayor Jason West who followed Newsom’s example, he said the reinstatement of criminal charges against West, for solemnizing marriages without licenses, was absurd, calling his actions “conspiracy to commit commitment.”
Frank acknowledged that he has little opportunity to advance legislation on gay rights on Capitol Hill with the White House and Congress in Republican hands.
“The Republicans won every Senate seat in the greater South,” Frank said, mentioning specifically, in uncharacteristically harsh language for a federal lawmaker, Kentucky’s re-election of Jim Bunning—“who is clinically ill”—and Tom Coburn in Oklahoma, “a lunatic and a wacko who lives in a parallel universe.”
Democrats have criticized both Republicans for employing blatantly homophobic language in their election efforts. Bunning was asked to apologize after repeating on the stump that his Democratic opponent, Dr. Daniel Mongiardo, a physician, had a “limp wrist.” During his campaign, Coburn said that “rampant lesbianism” in some of the state’s high schools posed a threat, and mentioned that the “gay community has infiltrated the very centers of power.”
Frank said that Bush’s re-election threatens a significant shift to the right on the Supreme Court. Four justices are considered to be considering retirement due to age or ill health—Chief Justice William Rehnquist as well as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Steven and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Three of them—all but Rehnquist—voted with the 6-3 majority in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas sodomy ruling. Reproductive choice and affirmative action could also be at risk in a Bush-shaped court.
Frank said that he does not believe Senate Republicans truly want to introduce the so-called “nuclear option” and change longstanding Senate rules to bar Democrats from filibustering Bush’s conservative nominees to the federal bench.
“Bush is quietly telling Republicans, ‘Raise the issue of ‘nuclear option,’ but don’t win the fight,’ Frank asserted.”
Frank also decried the “the deterioration of journalism,” calling the press “lazy, timid, and restrained.” In contrast, he praised the courts for having “distinguished themselves” in cases where judges stopped the administration from holding military detainees captured in the war on terror who were prevented from applying for writs of habeas corpus.
Frank said he is proud of his work to get rid of the McCarthy era bans on gay immigrants and visitors as well as on security clearances for gay people, accomplished in the early Clinton years.
“Bill Clinton was better for us than Kennedy was for blacks,” he said. Acknowledging that it would have been “bad advice” if Clinton told John Kerry to come out in favor of state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage during last year’s campaign as reported in Newsweek, “I’m not sure Clinton actually said that.”
Frank defended the idea of exposing public officials who have homosexual lives and publicly oppose gay rights.
“There is a right to privacy, but not to hypocrisy,” he said.
Asked whether news of a potential super-strain of HIV might require radical public health interventions, Frank said, “I spend a lot of my energy trying to protect people against what others do to them. I’m not in charge of policing adult decisions. Give them the information.”