When nearly 500 LGBT delegates attending the Democratic National Convention hold their first caucus meeting in Charlotte, N.C., next Tuesday, veteran gay Democratic activist Rick Stafford of Minnesota will pound the gavel to call the meeting to order.
Stafford, 60, has been credited with playing a lead role in lobbying, cajoling, and nudging the Democratic Party to take a strong stand on LGBT rights and to change its delegate selection rules and policies to reach out to minorities, especially LGBT people, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of LGBT delegates.
“This will be my tenth convention,” he told the Blade. “I was out for nine of them.”
He said he kept his sexual orientation confidential during his first Democratic Convention in Miami in 1972, when the Democrats nominated George McGovern for president. He had been selected to attend as a page at a time when he lived in a small town in rural Minnesota.
“There were just a few openly gay delegates,” he said. “You could fit them all in a phone booth.”
Since that time, Stafford has played an increasingly prominent role in Democratic Party politics, both locally and nationally, according to party activists who know him.
With the exception of the 1976 convention, which nominated Jimmy Carter and his vice presidential running mate Walter Mondale of Minnesota, Stafford said he has attended every Democratic Convention since then.
In 1992, Minnesota Democrats elected Stafford as chair of the state party, making him the first out gay person to win election to chair either of the two major parties in a state.
Since the 1990s Stafford has served at various times as a member of the Democratic National Committee. He currently chairs the DNC’s LGBT Americans Caucus.
Gay Democratic activist Kurt Vorndran of D.C., who has worked with Stafford on LGBT party related issues since the 1980s, said Stafford worked “relentlessly” both behind the scenes and through official DNC channels to push the party into requiring the state parties to set goals for recruiting LGBT people, along with other minorities, to become delegates to the Democratic conventions.
“He has served as a member of the party and convention rules committees,” Vorndran said. “He made sure the rule had outreach policies for the LGBT community. Thanks to his hard work and the work of others, for the first time, every single state may have at least one gay or LGBT delegate.”
Stafford said one of the most memorable conventions he attended was in 1984 in San Francisco, when fellow Minnesotan Walter Mondale was nominated for president and selected U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) as the nation’s first female vice presidential candidate for a major political party.
Working with then gay Democratic activist Tom Chorton of D.C., who became the leader of the nation’s first national gay Democratic Party organization, Stafford said he used his Minnesota connections to arrange meetings and phone conversations shortly before the start of the convention with high-level Mondale campaign officials, including Joan Mondale, the candidate’s wife.
As a result of those efforts, according to Stafford, the Mondale campaign put out the word to the convention platform committee that the campaign would support proposed language in the platform calling for federal legislation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“This led to the first formal recognition of gays by the party,” Stafford said.
With the exception of what he calls a few setbacks and “bumps in the road” the strength of the party’s platform on LGBT issues and the presence of LGBT people increased in every Democratic convention since that time, Stafford said.
Asked what the main objective for the convention’s LGBT caucus will be at the 2012 convention in Charlotte, Stafford said it will be to pull out all the stops to facilitate the re-election of Barack Obama as president.
“The goal is to celebrate what this administration has given us and our community,” he said.
“And just look at the things we’ll be celebrating. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ the Ryan White HIV Treatment Extension Act and a national AIDS strategy, the lifting of the HIV entry ban, the federal housing programs that ban discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the federal government.”
He fired off many other actions he considers “highly significant” LGBT-related accomplishments by the Obama administration, including the large number of LGBT people appointed to high-level administration jobs.
Stafford said that as a staunch adherent of the Democratic Party’s liberal-progressive wing, he sometimes finds himself playing the role of pragmatist. He said that role has already surfaced this week, when he counseled LGBT delegates not to engage in a floor protest against the controversial appearance at the convention of Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and former GOP Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who is backing Obama’s re-election bid. Dolan is scheduled to give the closing prayer at both the GOP and Democratic conventions.
LGBT activists last year denounced Dolan for taking a lead role in opposing New York State’s same-sex marriage law, which the state legislature passed. Activists in Florida have criticized Crist for not being more supportive on LGBT rights.
“I was a rabble rouser,” said Stafford. “But we knew about timing, when it’s the best time to pick and choose your battles. It’s just sheer stupidity when we’re even thinking about a negative protest when we have so much to celebrate.”