Richardson claims best record on gay issues Gay N.M. governor pledges to ask Congress for trans-inclusive ENDA if elected, decries ‘halfway measures’
LOU CHIBBARO JR Friday, December 21, 2007
Democratic presidential contender Bill Richardson said he would call on Congress to pass a transgender-inclusive employment non-discrimination bill, saying he disagrees with the strategy of Democratic leaders that a gay-only bill is all that could pass in the next few years.“I would go for the full-blown protection, including transgender,” he said in an exclusive Dec. 15 interview with the Washington Blade. “I think we’ve got to do what’s right and not do halfway measures.”Richardson, who spoke to the Blade by phone while campaigning in New Hampshire, noted that as governor of New Mexico, he pushed through and signed into law a comprehensive, transgender-inclusive gay rights bill in 2003 in a conservative, “red” state. The bill bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations, among other areas.“I think the American people are a tolerant people,” he said. “The country’s changed a lot. And I would push to get it through [Congress] and I think I could get it through as president.”On the international front, Richardson said he would “include the treatment of gay and lesbian people as a factor in American foreign policy positions” when dealing with countries known to persecute gays, such as Iran. He said he would also ask the United Nations to pass resolutions condemning anti-gay persecution and to advocate for the “full rights for gays and lesbians around the world.”He said he would emphasize his commitment to domestic and international AIDS issues by immediately appointing his vice president as chair of the Presidential Commission on HIV/AIDS.Equality New Mexico, the statewide gay rights group, has credited Richardson with playing a key role in pushing through a wide range of gay rights and AIDS-related measures in the state, including a hate crimes bill that protects gays and transgender persons. Activists have said Richardson didn’t take no for an answer when opponents demanded he drop transgender protections in both the hate crimes and non-discrimination bills. Acting as an outspoken advocate for the two bills, political observers in the state have said he helped line up the votes needed to pass the measures. The hate crimes bill cleared the state Senate by a one-vote margin.Richardson used his executive powers as governor to issue an order providing state health insurance benefits to the domestic partners of state employees. And earlier this year, he called on the legislature to pass a comprehensive domestic partners bill that includes all of the rights, protections, and responsibilities available to married couples under New Mexico law.The bill passed in the state House but fell one vote short in the state Senate when the legislative session ended in March. Richardson responded by calling a special legislative session and included the domestic partners measure on a list of just three bills to be considered in the special session. It remained blocked in the Senate when the special session ended, but Richardson now says he believes he has the votes to get it passed when the legislature begins its regular 2008 session in January.“He was an amazing partner with us in getting the domestic partners bill further than we ever thought we could,” said Christopher Salas, Equality New Mexico’s field director.Richardson proposed another bill that would require health insurance companies to provide coverage for domestic partners of private sector employees whose employers choose to offer partner benefits. That bill died in committee. Salas said it would not be needed if the legislature passes the more comprehensive domestic partners measure in 2008.A separate, same-sex marriage bill that was also introduced in the state legislature in 2007 died in committee, with Richardson remaining neutral on the bill. The marriage measure, which had no more than six supporters among state lawmakers, was aimed at raising same-sex marriage as an issue for future consideration, Salas said.Richardson has stated in recent Democratic presidential candidate debates that he favors civil unions or domestic partnerships over same-sex marriage.Richardson’s gay backers note that he emerged as an outspoken supporter of gay civil rights since his election to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1980s and during his tenure in the Clinton administration as Secretary of Energy and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Washington Blade: Why should lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans vote for you as president?
Bill Richardson: Because I, by far, have the best record, not just the record of voting right but of pushing for gay and GLBT legislation throughout my career as a congressman and as a governor, particularly as a governor. I believe I have the most far-reaching legislative record in a red state than any other governor. In fact, I think New Mexico and New York are considered the most pro gay-lesbian states in terms of rights simply because I’ve taken leadership positions and not just supported them.
I’ve taken the lead, as you probably know, on a number of pieces of legislation. Hate crimes [legislation] with [protections for] gender identity — I pushed that in 2003 against the advice of gay rights activists who thought it would be too controversial. I pushed it and got it done by one vote. I passed executive orders preventing discrimination against gays in the state workplace. We passed legislation preventing discrimination against gay people. … I put a domestic partnership bill on the legislative agenda last year. We lost by one vote, and I’m going to put it up again in January.
So by far I’ve got the strongest record and the gay civil rights community should, in my judgment, support me, not because I have the best position papers or give the best speeches but what I’ve done as a governor to advance the legislation, and that I would champion this legislation. These efforts in the Congress, if I were president, I would repeal DOMA. I would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I would push for a hate crimes bill. It looks like the Senate and the Congress has failed to pass one. In addition to that, they eliminated from the Armed Services bill a vitally important amendment. So that’s what I would do.
Blade: Can you talk about what you would do to get the domestic partners bill through the New Mexico Legislature? Would it be in next year’s session?
Richardson: Well, it would be our January session. It will be in about a month, and I think the odds of us getting it passed are good. I’ve worked on a lot of votes. I think we have a comfortable margin in the House and a one-vote margin today in the Senate. I’m going to try to add a little insurance to that in the next few days. But my point is that I’ve put domestic partnership on the call of a special session last year. I brought in the legislature specifically to deal with three issues and one of them was domestic partnership. So I think, given this is a red state, it’s a significant commitment.
Blade: Your supporters say the domestic partnership bill you are pushing in New Mexico may be among the broadest of the states that have these laws and that it includes most of the rights and benefits of marriage under your state’s laws. Was that your intent to go as far as you could under state law?
Richardson: Well, yea, it’s very progressive, it’s very advanced. I want it to be a model for the rest of the country. I think we became a model when we became the first state to pass transgender protection. And I also regret that the Congress eliminated transgender protection. You know, sometimes it’s important to do what’s right, not what’s most politically popular.
Blade: You were referring to something that has divided and gay and transgender community. House Democratic leaders, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Barney Frank, removed transgender protections from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, making it a so-called gay-only bill, because they said they didn’t have the votes to pass a bill with transgender protections. They said they support transgender protections but they believe it would have to be taken up at another time. Would you have any particular approach to this issue if you were president?
Richardson: Yes, I would go for the full-blown protection, including transgender. I think you’ve got to do what’s right and not do halfway measures, although Barney Frank has been heroic over the years in his efforts. But what I would do as president, I would include transgender. I would make it as comprehensive as possible. I think the American people are a tolerant people. The country’s changed a lot. And I would push to get it through and I think I could get it through as president.
Blade: Getting back to the domestic partners bill, there was a marriage bill that was also introduced in the New Mexico legislature, and you did not support that. It died in committee. Can you explain your views on that and on same-sex marriage?
Richardson: Well, I feel it’s important to do what’s achievable. What I support is civil unions with full marriage rights. I think we have to do what is achievable and be realistic. And there’s so many other measures that the gay and lesbian community need before same-sex marriage that I think it’s important to be legislatively prudent. That’s why I have advocated these other equally significant measures that offer real protection. That’s not correct. I never killed or did anything to signal on gay marriage.
I believe we have to pass what is achievable, and in my state a domestic partners bill is achievable. You’re talking about a very conservative state. So I think it makes sense to focus on as far-reaching legislation as possible. This is why I’ve included transgender, this is why I’ve included the strongest domestic partnership bill, this is why I believe it’s important. If I’m elected president, early in my administration, I’ll push for repealing “Don’t Act, Don’t Tell” and for repealing DOMA. Because DOMA has two provisions in there, it has two sections that virtually negate civil unions. And I think we have to repeal the entire act instead of just dealing with a couple of sections that are very faulty.
Blade: Would you favor asking Congress to go beyond that, to pass legislation that experts say is needed to provide the more than 1,100 federal rights and benefits that go with marriage to couples who, through their states, obtain civil unions or domestic partnerships?
Richardson: Yes, I would.
Blade: Would something like that be problematic to get through Congress at this time?
Richardson: I think you want to do it in stages. I would try to do it early in my term. But I would probably start with a hate crimes bill first. I would then go to repeal DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Those would be the three that I would push early, including the transgender inclusion. I believe that you maybe want to have what you mentioned as the fourth pillar. But I would start early and I would push hard for these things. I think they are very achievable.
Blade: Could you elaborate on what has been widely reported in the media as your two gaffes on gay-related issues — your use of the Spanish word “maricon” on the Don Imus radio show and your comment during the Human Rights Campaign-Logo debate that homosexuality is a choice?
Richardson: Well, those were mistakes. They were screw-ups. On the Imus issue, Imus actually asked me to repeat it, just to show that I could speak Spanish. So I didn’t say it in a derogatory sense. Plus, I think the version of ‘maricon’ in Spanish is not — in some cases in the old days when I learned the word, it was not directed at gay people. Gay people weren’t even referred to in the ‘60s, as you recall. It was more a term of making fun of somebody and there was no connection to it being a gay insult. But nonetheless, I shouldn’t have used the word. He just asked me to repeat it to see if I could speak Spanish. And so it was an inadvertent mistake.
The second one, I was just tired. I should have known better. I wasn’t thinking. You know, we all make mistakes but I shouldn’t be judged on one stupid word as opposed to, I think, a distinguished and very progressive record. So that’s happened. I misunderstood the question. I still made a mistake because I have always been enamored of using the word choice. You know, choice when it comes to the right to choose, choice when it comes to health care. I thought that was an opening to say that I was for choice. I do now understand — I did understand that, I did know that. It’s just a foolish thing that I said.
Blade: On the issue of immigration, this is a heated issue in the country now and you’re faced with immigration problems in your state. Would you, as president, advocate for yet another piece of legislation being pushed by the gay community that would allow a domestic partner of an American citizen who is a foreign national the same right to U.S. citizenship as a heterosexual foreigner who marries an American?
Richardson: Yes, I would. And I’ve already voiced my support for legislation to do that. I think it’s the right and humane thing to do. If we’re going to be tolerant on national issues affecting the United States, we should be tolerant when it comes to treating gay and lesbian people on an international basis. So the answer is yes.
Blade: What are your views on the recent comment by Gov. Mike Huckabee, the Republican presidential candidate, where it was revealed that he stated in 1992, 10 years after the start of the AIDS epidemic, that isolating and quarantining might be needed. He also said the government shouldn’t spend much of its own funds on AIDS research, that celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor should pay for AIDS research programs.
Richardson: Well, those were unfortunate comments. But they were made in 1992. I know Gov. Huckabee. He’s obviously grown enormously in his views since then. I don’t know what he’s saying now. They were obviously very unfortunate comments that he made. But so have I. I’ve made dumb mistakes before. I don’t know what he’s saying now.
Blade: Some of his critics are pointing out that he has said he would stick to some of those positions, possibly because he’s worried about being labeled, like Gov. Romney was, as a flip-flopper.
Richardson: You know, sometimes when facts change, it’s OK to change your position. I’ve always said that, that if there are different circumstances, different facts and there’s different situations, your mind evolves, you learn more, you change your position. Now, it’s another point to have nine positions that you’ve had as a governor and all of a sudden you’re running for president and you have nine new positions. That’s a lot.
But you know, if it’s an isolated case, where the political leader shows personal growth and understanding of the issue better and facts change — you know, everybody’s human. Nobody’s perfect. I’m not making amends for Huckabee. I’m just saying — you just told me what he said now. I think his position is wrong if he’s sticking to what he said. But I’ve known his mind to evolve on a lot of issues. I’ve known him as a governor. He’s basically a decent man.
Blade: What message would you have at this stage in the campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters who are hearing other Democratic presidential candidates express support on these issues?
Richardson: Well, my message to them is they shouldn’t go on who’s expressed support. They should look at the record. They should look at who’s done things for gay and lesbian people. And there’s nobody who’s done more — and that would be an indication of how I would be as president.
My hope is that gay and lesbian people don’t just vote for the glamour of candidates or who has the most money and political pedigree, but vote for somebody with a solid record and a solid commitment to their issues. That’s the only request I have. So that’s my hope. I don’t know what else I can say. I’d be honored to have the support of the gay and lesbian community. I’ve actively courted it. But this is a record I’ve had since 1980 when I was a congressman.
I was supporting gay-lesbian issues when it wasn’t terribly popular in the ’80s. And I’ve always consistently been there. It hasn’t been a conversion. It’s been long-stated policy positions of mine that have been, I believe, highlighted in the last four years by championing these issues and getting it done. I’ve actually done things for gay people in contrast to other candidates who may be voting right occasionally but have no record.
Blade: On foreign policy issues, your supporters point to your experience as a diplomat and a negotiator in your role as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. As president, would you speak out about or do something about persecution of gay people in countries such as Iran, where gays are executed. Should the U.S. president take a stand on something like that?
Richardson: Yes. First, in my definition of the importance of human rights in foreign policy, and how we judge other countries in relationship with ties with the United States, it shouldn’t just be the Geneva Conventions and fair elections. I would include the treatment of gay and lesbian people as a factor in American foreign policy positions toward those countries.
Secondly, I think the United Nations is a very strong forum to, with the Human Rights Committee, to pass resolutions, not just condemning these actions but pushing for full rights for gays and lesbians around the world. And then, thirdly, I would make my AIDS commission — millennium goals a major priority, funding for AIDS treatment, outreach and education. But I would also put my vice president in charge of the AIDS commission to give it both national and international strength, which is going to be needed to continue fighting pandemic diseases and AIDS around the world.
Blade: By AIDS commission, are you referring to the presidential AIDS commission?
Richardson: Yes, but I would also give it an international charter, which would be to try to pass as many AIDS-related resolutions in international forums to increase not just the commitment of countries of AIDS but efforts to get pharmaceutical companies and generic drugs more in the international market.
Blade: Thank you, governor, for your time.
Richardson: Thank you.