Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernard Sanders wants you to know he’s had a strong record on LGBT issues during his nearly 35 years as a public servant.
In an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade on Thursday in his Senate office, Sanders touted that record when asked why LGBT voters should support him in his recently announced bid for the Democratic presidential nomination over fellow ally Hillary Clinton.
“All I can say is I think I have one of the strongest, if not the strongest record, in the United States Congress on LGBT issues,” Sanders said. “My record speaks for itself, and I will compare it to any candidate who is out there.”
Indeed, the self-avowed “democratic socialist” has a long history of public service. In the 1980s, he served as mayor of Burlington, Vt. Afterward, he represented the state from 1991 to 2007 in the U.S. House. Since 2007, he’s served in the U.S. Senate.
In 1996, Sanders was among 67 U.S. House members to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which was later passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Sanders said he couldn’t have predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court would ultimately strike down the section of the law barring the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages.
“I remember being on the floor at the time,” Sanders said. “It was politically a very difficult vote, and despite what some may say, the Supreme Court evolves as does the American public. I think it’s also fair to say that very few people would have predicted the degree to which gay rights have changed, the dramatic change in a relatively short period of time.”
Sanders pointed to the pioneering role Vermont has played on LGBT issues. He said Vermont “arguably is the leading state that has advanced gay rights.” In 2000, Vermont became the first state in the country to enact civil unions, which Sanders said he supported at the time, even though it was “very, very difficult” politically. In 2009, Vermont became the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage through the legislature.
The country could see another milestone in a little more than a month, when the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.
Sanders said a decision from the Supreme Court in favor of same-sex marriage would be evidence of sweeping change in the country on social issues, but maintained progress in economic inequality hasn’t been as successful.
“It will be very clearly, a very significant decision, and a major step for equality,” Sanders said. “In the United States, I think we have seen in the last 20 to 25 years, some very positive changes in terms of becoming a less discriminatory society. I talk a whole lot about economics, in fact, in terms of economics, we are becoming clearly a nation with more and more wealth inequality. We’re losing that battle. But in areas of civil rights, in areas of gay rights, in areas of women’s rights, we’ve made some good progress.”
The independent Democrat criticized state lawmakers seeking to roll back this progress with anti-LGBT legislation, including those in the Texas House. At the time of the interview, anti-gay forces in Texas were pushing a bill that sought to undermine a potential Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage by prohibiting the use of state and local funds for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“I think that when you’re devoid of ideas as to how you can address the major problems facing this country, what politicians have done historically is look at scapegoats — whether they’re blacks, whether they’re immigrants, whether they’re gays, whether they’re women — make it easier, try to create a political climate where you can gain votes by beating up on a minority,” Sanders said. “And that’s just another attempt, but they’re losing ground, there’s no question about it.”
Sanders, 73, said such lawmakers are “losing the generational battle” and recalled meetings he’s had in his state with high school students, whom he said even in the conservative parts of Vermont think same-sex marriage and abortion are “non-issues.”
“I’m sure there are people who are 80 and 90 who still have their prejudices, but not among people who are 20 and 30 by and large,” Sanders said.
Asked about the continued lack of nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people in the federal code, Sanders said he supports amending the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Asked to elaborate, Sanders replied, “Keep going. What I just told you. I spent 25 years fighting for equal rights.”
“What makes it a good idea that black people can drink water at a fountain?” Sanders continued. “We are trying to create a non-discriminatory society where we judge people based on their character, on their abilities, not on the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender. Clearly, as a nation we’ve made good progress, we have a lot further to go.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is expected to introduce legislation along those lines this spring that would institute comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination protections in the areas of employment, public accommodations, housing, credit, education and federal programs. When the Blade asked Sanders whether he’d support the bill, he replied, “Jeff and I work closely on these issues and I suspect that I will.”
Sanders said he’d make a point during his campaign to talk about transgender people being part of American society and added the Obama administration should end the medical regulation barring openly trans people from serving in the U.S. military.
Asked about what steps can be taken to address the high rate of violence against transgender women, particularly transgender women of color, Sanders said, “I think we have to, among other things, do a better job in educating our police officers.”
Sanders recalled his tenure as mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, when he said police would sometimes ignore incidents of domestic violence because it was considered a “family dispute.”
“The point is we need to make sure that police departments are sensitive to the fact that every person in this country — man, woman, transgender, whatever you may be — is entitled to equal protection under the law, and abusing people is not acceptable,” Sanders said.
Speaking to the Blade just hours after he voted on the Senate floor against the fast-track for legislation to advance the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, Sanders said draconian anti-gay laws criminalizing same-sex relations in countries like Brunei and Malaysia are one reason to reject the measure.
“That’s one of the reasons, but there are many other reasons,” Sanders said. “It would be a disastrous agreement for American workers. This agreement is incredibly anti-Democratic in the sense that it allows corporations to sue countries to pass legislation to protect workers or the environment or their health. This is disastrous for a number of reasons. You’ve named one, but you can add it to a long list of other reasons.”
One day after the House Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would cut funding for Amtrak by $1.5 billion in the same week an Amtrak train derailed and killed eight people, Sanders was critical of the funding effort, noting “the timing was immaculate” for passage of the bill.
“One of the provisions in legislation that we’ve already introduced is the strongest infrastructure currently that has been offered,” Sanders said. “It would require the expenditure of a trillion dollars over a five-year period to rebuild roads, bridges, our rail system, airports. And what it does is make this country more competitive, more productive, safer … So rebuilding our troubling infrastructure and rail is an example of where we are falling further and further behind many other countries: Europe, Japan, China. So investing in rail is something that I believe is very important.”
Sanders has his work cut out for him in winning the Democratic nomination to run for president. According to a recent Public Policy Polling poll, Clinton leads Democratic candidates with 63 percent support among Democratic voters, followed by Sanders at 13 percent.
But the Vermonter had little to say about his Democratic rivals. Much as he didn’t explicitly mention Clinton when asked why LGBT voters should support him over her, Sanders had few words when asked about former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who’s expected to announce his candidacy May 30 in Baltimore.
“I don’t know honestly,” Sanders said. “I’ve met Martin once in my life. So I don’t know much about him.”
In the event he doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, Sanders said he’s sticking with his position that he won’t run as an independent in the general election, saying, “No, I would not do that.”
Sanders said his worldview intersects with the LGBT rights movement because democratic socialism is “very much about dignity and equal rights for all people” and against discrimination.
“But where it’s also important is that whether you are gay or straight or transgender, you don’t have a job, or if you don’t have the kind of income you need to live with dignity, you’re going to suffer,” Sanders said. “So, I think what we have to do as a nation is make sure that the jobs we create pay a living wage, which means raising minimum wage, passing pay equity, creating trade policies that work for American workers, expanding Social Security. Those impact every person in American regardless of their sexual orientation.”