An outspoken advocate for placing D.C.’s same-sex marriage law on the ballot in a voter referendum in 2010 says he no longer holds that view and will express “respect” for the law as a candidate for the City Council in a special election this spring.
Civic activist Delano Hunter has announced plans to run for the Ward 5 Council seat that became vacant last week when incumbent Harry Thomas, a Democrat, resigned after pleading guilty to federal theft and tax evasion charges.
“I do not seek to overturn the Marriage Equality Act when elected,” Hunter told the Blade in a statement released on Tuesday.
“I will, however, continue to establish working relationships within the LGBT community to focus on issues that affect the quality of life for all residents of the District of Columbia,” he said.
Hunter unsuccessfully challenged Thomas in the September 2010 Democratic primary. He received the backing of anti-gay groups that opposed the same-sex marriage law. The D.C. Council approved the law in December 2009.
At the time, Hunter joined gay marriage opponents in calling for a voter referendum to overturn the law. The city’s election board ruled that the law could not be subjected to a referendum, saying doing so would violate the city’s Human Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The D.C. Superior Court, the D.C. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the election board’s ruling following a series of appeals by gay marriage opponents who challenged the election board’s decision.
In an exclusive Jan. 10 interview with the Blade, Hunter said that while groups opposed to same-sex marriage endorsed his candidacy in the 2010 Democratic primary, he focused his campaign on other issues, such as unemployment, crime and the high rate of HIV infection among residents of his ward.
Thomas, who supported the marriage law and opposed subjecting it to a referendum, defeated Hunter by a margin of 61 percent to 19 percent in the September 2010 primary.
Hunter said he now considers the marriage law a “settled issue” and has no intention of raising it as an issue in a special election to fill Thomas’s seat that is expected to take place in May.
“My stance is that I respect the Marriage Equality Act,” he told the Blade. “It gives individuals the right to marry whom they chose. But also it gives our religious institutions the right to ordain marriage according to their beliefs. So that is something that I’m in agreement with. It is settled. It is a moot point.”
Hunter said he did not take a position in 2010 and has no position now on whether the D.C. Council should or should not have passed the same-sex marriage law.
“My position was that residents should have the right to vote on this issue,” he said. “That was something that was approved by residents of our ward within a [Washington Post] straw poll…So for me, I said, OK, if folks want the right to discuss this through this method, we should do so.”
Hunter added, “Obviously, it was approved by the Council and the courts said it was not something that can be voted upon. And those are our elected representatives. They passed the law. It’s done.”
Thomas announced his resignation less than a day after federal authorities charged him with felony theft for allegedly embezzling more than $350,000 in government funds and filing false income tax returns with the IRS.
He pleaded guilty on Jan. 6 to one count of theft concerning city programs receiving federal funds and one count of filing a false tax return.
“I am resigning my position as a member of the Council effective immediately,” Thomas said in a statement released Jan. 5. “I made some very serious mistakes and exhibited inadequate and flawed judgment. I take full responsibility for my actions. I am truly sorry.”
Among those calling for Thomas’s resignation last fall, when news surfaced that he was about to be charged with an embezzlement related offense, were Robert Turner, president of the D.C. Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group; and Robert Kabel, the gay chair of the D.C. Republican Party.
Most gay Democratic activists who supported Thomas before news surfaced about his legal problems, including the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, did not join others in calling for his resignation.
Thomas drew praise from LGBT activists in 2009 when he voted for the city’s same-sex marriage law over strong objections from many of his Ward 5 constituents, who oppose same-sex marriage.
A large number of the ward’s residents are conservative African Americans who support civil rights related legislation but oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Clergy from black churches in the ward testified against the marriage bill during a contentious City Council hearing prior to the Council’s vote to approve the bill in December 2009.
The anti-gay National Organization for Marriage and other national groups opposed to same-sex marriage contributed tens of thousands of dollars for direct mail, robocalls, and racially divisive fliers attacking Thomas during his re-election campaign in 2010, according to Right Wing Watch, a project of People for the American Way, an LGBT-supportive organization.
Right Wing Watch said some of the same anti-gay groups supported Delano Hunter’s race against Thomas but didn’t contribute large amounts of money directly to his campaign. NOM sent a mailer supportive of Hunter to residents of Ward 5 in 2010.
LGBT activists were quick to point out that the attack campaign against Thomas had little effect since he won re-election by a large margin.
Gay Republican Tim Day, a member of Log Cabin Republicans, ran against Thomas in the general election in November 2010 but lost by a lopsided margin in a ward that is overwhelmingly Democratic. Day hasn’t said whether he will run for the seat in the special election this year.
Other Democrats are expected to run in the special election for Thomas’s seat. LGBT advocates and gay residents of the ward will likely appeal to Council member Vincent Orange (D-At-Large), who formerly held the Ward 5 seat, to back a candidate supportive of LGBT equality and same-sex marriage. Orange remains a popular figure in the Ward.
He opposed same-sex marriage at the time he held his Ward 5 seat and when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2006. But Orange changed his position shortly before he ran for the at-large Council seat in a special election, saying he now strongly supports civil marriage for gay and lesbian couples.
The Stein Club, which plans to endorse a Democratic candidate in the special election, issued a statement last week saying its members’ thoughts were with Thomas’s family and the residents of Ward 5.
“While we are saddened that someone who many in our community supported and had high hopes for fell short of our collective ethical expectations for public officials, our primary concern is with the residents and youth of Ward 5,” the Stein Club statement says. “We plan to stay engaged in the process to ensure that the next Ward 5 councilmember is both a strong supporter of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights and a person who holds himself or herself up to the highest ethical standards.”