Gay advocates are commending Sen. Joseph Lieberman for the work he’s done during his career on LGBT issues — particularly repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — in the wake of the lawmaker’s announcement that he’ll retire from the U.S. Senate next year.
Lieberman, who ran as a vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket in 2000, announced he would not seek a fifth term as a U.S. senator on Wednesday during a speech at the Mariott hotel in Stanford, Conn.
“At the end of this term, I will have served 24 years in the U.S. Senate and 40 years in elective office,” Lieberman said. “By my count, I’ve run at least 15 full-fledged campaigns — and that’s just in Connecticut, not counting the national campaigns I was involved in. So for me, it is time for another season, another purpose under Heaven.”
Lieberman said he’ll continue to work as a public servant for the remainder of his term and said his planned retirement enables to devote his “full measure of [his] energy and attention to getting things done for Connecticut and our country.”
“I will keep doing everything in my power to keep building strong bridges across party lines, to keep our country safe to win the wars we are in and to make sure America’s leadership on the world stage is principled and strong,” Lieberman said.
While credited as an LGBT advocate, Lieberman is unpopular among voters in Connecticut, according to one poll, which possibly prompted his decision to retire.
A Public Policy Poll published in October found that he had a 57 percent disapproval rating and 66 percent of voters said they would vote against him in the 2012 election.
Lieberman invoked the ire of many in the liberal base for supporting Republican John McCain over now President Obama in the 2008 election and for opposing the public option and Medicare expansion as part of health care reform.
Despite the disappointment he inspired in many Democrats, the Connecticut senator leaves a legacy of being the champion of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal after his long fight to push a measure overturning the law through the Senate.
An opponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” since its passage in 1993, Lieberman in March introduced standalone legislation that would have repealed the military’s gay ban.
In May, Lieberman succeeded in attaching a repeal amendment in Senate Armed Services Committee to a major defense spending bill. After opposition successfully blocked the legislation from coming to the floor, Lieberman introduced new standalone repeal that found its way to the President Obama’s desk.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the importance of Lieberman’s contribution to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal effort is difficult to describe in words.
“There are few people that I can say ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ simply would not have happened if it weren’t for them, and he’s one of them,” Nicholson said. “So his contribution has been immeasurable, literally.”
Nicholson said Lieberman’s ability to “put a lot of personal, moderate capital” into the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal effort was responsible for bringing Republican support to the legislation.
“His staff really did work on this issue for hours and hours a day at senior levels on his staff,” Nicholson said. “I felt a huge commitment there that hasn’t been matched in any other office that I’ve seen.”
Former Congressman Patrick Murphy, the Democratic lawmaker who led “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the U.S. House, called Lieberman “a champion of equality” and said repeal of the military’s gay ban “would not have happened in the Senate without his effort.”
“His argument of why this policy was so wrong and the real need to do this now was instrumental in making repeal a reality,” Murphy said.
Lieberman’s role on LGBT issues wasn’t limited to LGBT issues. He was a co-sponsor of a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act and in 1996 was among the 49 senators to vote in favor of the legislation.
The Connecticut senator also championed legislation known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, which would provide health and pension benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. In 2009, the legislation was reported out of Senate committee, but never saw a vote on the Senate floor.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, called Lieberman “a longtime ally and advocate for the LGBT community,” particularly for his work on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“He was an amazing ally in pushing everyday to make sure that we got over the finish line,” Lieberman said. “His hard work was certainly critical to that success.”
But Lieberman isn’t entirely supportive of the advancements sought by many in the LGBT community. Like President Obama, Lieberman doesn’t support marriage rights for gay couples and in 1996 voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Still, Cole-Schwartz said Lieberman has been “consistently there” for LGBT activists in recent years.
“I think there is a long way for a number of our leaders to go in terms of recognizing our right to full and equal marriage, but his record aside from that has been stellar,” Cole-Schwartz said.
Despite Lieberman’s lack of support for same-sex marriage, Lieberman voted twice against the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have made a ban on same-sex marriage part of the U.S. Constitution.
According to the Huffington Post, Democrats who could replace Lieberman include Susan Bysiewicz, a former Connecticut secretary of state, as well as Reps. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). Linda McMahon, a former World Wrestling Entertainment CEO and 2010 candidate for U.S. Senate, is widely expected to run again as a Republican contender.
But what’s next for Lieberman? Speculation has already emerged that he could replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates when he retires from his position sometime this year.
According to Politico, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — a longtime friend of Lieberman, even though he opposed him on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal effort — said he would support Lieberman’s nomination as defense chief should Obama name him to the post.