Amid discontent with the GOP over the federal government shutdown, one prominent Republican took to the stage at a gay rights event Wednesday night to urge the party to return to its days of “the big tent.”
Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and secretary of Homeland Security under the Bush administration, issued the call for inclusion during his keynote address at the 2013 Spirit of Lincoln dinner, an annual event held in D.C. by the Log Cabin Republicans.
“If we want to win, we need to be a party worthy of the 21st century,” Ridge said. “A nonjudgmental party where all who support us are welcome. A party where diversity of view, race, ethnicity, gender and religion are relished and promoted and nourished.”
During the 30-minute speech, Ridge talked about his own evolution on the issue of marriage equality, saying he didn’t support marriage rights for gay couples when he was elected governor of Pennsylvania, but later changed his mind.
“My support of marriage equality wasn’t a decision made at one point in time,” Ridge said. “There was no epiphany; it evolved. It simply came to make sense – that all of us are equal in the eyes of the God we worship and the same should be true of the government to which we ‘render unto Caesar.’”
Ridge was among 131 Republicans who signed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to strike down California’s Proposition 8.
As members of the Republican party are beginning to take differing views on gay rights and marriage equality, Ridge said the regressive views taking prominence in the Republican Party are what’s keeping the party from making gains at the national political level.
“Our own narrow thinking on social issues is one of the principal reasons we have lost the last two national elections,” Ridge said.
Ridge also made reference to actions that Republican lawmakers took in recent weeks that led to the shutdown of the federal government.
“And if you supplement our offensive and exclusionary view on social issues with the debacle of the past few weeks, we should be concerned about our brand, our message and our future,” Ridge said. “The majority of Americans don’t like Obamacare, but they like the flawed and failed tactics to default even less.”
Ridge didn’t completely abandon the party line during his speech. A portion was dedicated to the memory of President Reagan and his ability to attract “the center, conservative Democrats and independents” to the Republican Party. Additionally, Ridge was critical of Obamacare, which he called “a flawed law worthy of repeal,” generating enthusiastic applause from the audience.
“You know I am pro-choice, but in mandating that these institutions perform abortions or provide other services contrary to its values, the government is forcing its views on the practices of these religious institutions,” Ridge continued. “It is a scary, slippery slope.”
Despite his urge for inclusion, Ridge was careful to include in his speech a call for acceptance of individuals who have not embraced ideas like marriage equality.
“If we want a government that acknowledges our God-given right to freely choose how we live — in regard to marriage and other issues – we must demand a government that respects the rights of others to choose and follow their conscience just the same,” Ridge said.
Ridge’s speech was well-recevied by the estimated 165 people who attended the dinner. Bob Kabel, a gay D.C. Republican activist and member of the Republican National Committee, said Ridge’s speech was “very well written and well delivered” and praised its call for inclusion.
“It was a lot about Reagan, it was a lot about his aspirations for people, his views of politics, which is to be a party of inclusion, not exclusion, and we’ve really gotten away from that,” Kabel said.
Speaking with the Washington Blade prior to his speech, Ridge said it’s important for the public and the younger generation to hear a message of inclusion because an emphasis on social issues is scaring them off.
“Sometimes we appear very self-righteous, very judgmental and among many constituencies that doesn’t appeal to in addition to general America, young people, whom I think we need to attract to our party, don’t like self-righteous judgmental people leading the mindset,” Ridge said. “Unfortunately, some of those folks make the most noise.”
Ridge said he believes some Republicans “will never accept necessarily the gay and lesbian community,” but nonetheless urged members of the party to be tolerant.
“I’m not trying to change their mind, just changing their heart, so they’re more tolerant and accepting of other peoples’ life and lifestyles, because within the Log Cabin community there’s a value system that’s consistent with the traditional Republican message on fiscal policy, defense and the like,” Ridge said.
Prior to Ridge’s speech, Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, delivered his own remarks invoking the memory of Reagan and calling for a “big tent” within the Republican Party. Angelo said he invited Nancy Reagan to attend the dinner, but she declined because she’s not making social appearances.
However, Angelo read a letter that he said came from her assistant saying she appreciates the memory of her husband’s opposition to the Briggs Initiative in California during the 1970s and further appreciates that Log Cabin holds him in such high esteem.
Rep. Issa makes appearance
Ridge wasn’t the only high-profile Republican to make an appearance at the Log Cabin dinner. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Regulation, was among the invited guests. Issa didn’t speak publicly, but spoke with attendees briefly before the dinner began.
Issa was invited even though he scored “0″ on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard. An opponent of same-sex marriage, Issa has voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment and against a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
Asked by the Washington Blade during the dinner why he was interested in appearing at a gay rights event, Issa said, “I’ve done it past years all the way to my freshman year in Congress.”
“The way I look at Log Cabin Republicans in my view is the Carl DeMaio race in San Diego and a huge amount of races for Republicans across the country are the No. 1 challenge for these individuals here tonight is moving an agenda that they find supportive,” Issa told reporters.
In response to another Blade question on whether his position on same-sex marriage has changed, Issa talked about “issues,” but said following the Supreme Court decisions in June “gay marriage has become the law of the land more or less.” Issa also expressed interest in domestic partner benefits for federal employees, an issue over which his committee has jurisdiction.
A bill introduced by gay Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) called the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act would extend those benefits to federal employees if they’re in same-sex relationships, but live in non-marriage equality states and don’t have access to travel to marry.
Issa also commented on ENDA, saying he hasn’t taken a position it, nor has he had a chance to review the current bill.
“My assumption is that the bill we could pass in the House, the bill we could pass in the Senate would be different, but that’s not unusual because when it comes to employment non-discrimination in any area, it’s important that you get in a way that isn’t simply a litigation,” Issa said. “You know, I don’t want to empower the trial lawyers in any legislation I do.”
It’s not the first time that lawmakers with unfavorable records have made appearances at Log Cabin events. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) made an appearance at a private Log Cabin event in 2010 and was honored with the organization’s Barry Goldwater award.
Other lawmakers who were scheduled to make an appearance at the dinner were Reps. Pete King (R-N.Y.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), who have similarly abysmal records on gay rights in Congress. Neither actually made an appearance at the dinner. It wasn’t immediately clear why King and Poe didn’t appear after they were scheduled to attend.
Log Cabin’s Angelo said he invited Issa and the other lawmakers to the dinner because the organization wants to reach out to all lawmakers within the party.
“I’m not going to refuse to interact or engage with or welcome to our event anyone who’s interested to engage with Log Cabin Republicans,” Angelo said. “I can tell you that I’ve had meetings with senior staff or the actual members themselves of all those individuals, and there are meetings that lead me to believe that we continue to grow in our relationship with those congressmen. I think them coming tonight is certainly a sign that shows they’re willing to engage with gay Republicans and we’re headed in the right direction as a party.”