Eight years ago, the Democratic presidential primary split the LGBT community between then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama, who ultimately won the nomination and the White House.
As the 2016 election approaches, many prominent gay Democrats who backed Obama over Clinton in 2008 say they support her this time around, though there are some holdouts who are waiting to hear more, undermining the notion they’d automatically rally behind the former secretary of state in her second bid for the presidency.
Eric Stern, director of operations for the career development office for the law school at University of California, Berkeley, supported Obama in 2008 and said he isn’t yet ready to back Clinton.
“I think it depends on how seriously she and her campaign take the concerns that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party have about her ability to champion our interests,” Stern said. “I think it’s going to be really important, and I hope when this happens that she’ll work with Elizabeth Warren to gain her support and will hopefully rely on Elizabeth Warren as an adviser during the campaign.”
Stern recalled in 2008, Clinton was his “third choice.” After his No. 1 choice in the primary, former senator and 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards, dropped out of the race, Stern threw his support behind Obama and became national co-chair of his LGBT leadership council.
Among Stern’s accomplishments were redirecting 70 percent of Edwards’ LGBT supporters to back Obama, managing LGBT voter contact efforts in Ohio and Texas and serving as a media surrogate for the Obama campaign.
“Both the message of the platforms of John Edwards and Barack Obama to me were more in line with my values, so I want to take a wait-and-see approach to what Secretary Clinton has to say about herself, about the kind of president she’d be, the kind of White House she would have and what her priorities would be and how she would address the grave economic inequality in our country right now,” Stern said. “That’s my No. 1 issue.”
Although a “Draft Elizabeth Warren” campaign to urge the Massachusetts senator to enter the race is underway, Stern said he hasn’t formally taken part in those efforts, but may have signed a petition for Warren. At this point, Stern said if he had to vote in the primary, he would back U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders in his presidential bid.
“I think he’s really the only one who’s standing up to corporate interests and who’s really speaking honestly about the economic inequality that exists in our country, and the way in which a Democratic president would need to address that in order to help those who are unemployed and underemployed and still struggling from the after effects of the recession, and I don’t hear that from Hillary Clinton in the same way I hear that from Bernie Sanders,” Stern said.
But in the likely event Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Stern said he’d be “proud to vote for her” on Election Day 2016.
The issue of how Obama’s 2008 LGBT supporters view Clinton came to prominence this week. On the campaign trail in Iowa, Clinton made a stop at the Mason City home of Dean Genth and Gary Swensen, a politically active same-sex couple that was one of the first to marry in Iowa in 2009 and supported Obama over Clinton in 2008.
During her 30-minute remarks, Clinton addressed topics ranging from preserving Obamacare to mental health advocacy, but concluded with a story that could be seen as a call for unification. Clinton recalled a trip to Indonesia when she was asked on a morning show about how she could work for Obama after he defeated her in the primary.
“I thought I have to answer this in a very serious way that maybe they can understand that in our democracy, we do try to close the ranks after we have hard elections, at least that’s what we should be doing,” Clinton said. “So I said, ‘Well you’re right. I campaigned hard, he won, I lost, I then campaigned to get him elected. He asked me to be secretary of state and I said ‘yes’ for the same reason: We both love our country. And at the end of the day to me, that’s what elections are supposed to be about.”
After the event, Genth told the Blade as the head of a local Democratic group he’s unable at this time to take an official position on the presidential primary. Nonetheless, he had positive things to say about Clinton, despite having backed Obama in 2008.
“We just felt as a lot of people did that it was his moment and it was his time, but I think we feel equally as strong now that this is Hillary’s moment and this is Hillary’s time,” Genth said. “We think she’s tremendously a more mature and stronger candidate than just eight years ago. You could sense in the house today, her demeanor and her sense of knowing what she knows now that she’s served four years as the most traveled secretary of state in the history of our country. I think she’s more comfortable in her skin.”
But Genth recalled that during the 2008 presidential primary, when he helped set up the first Obama campaign office in Iowa and allowed Obama campaign workers to stay at his home, the split in the LGBT community was palpable.
“A lot of our LGBT folks, especially our lesbian friends, were just adamant for Hillary,” Genth said. “We were back in that mode of saying we got to go for the person that can win in November. Our LGBT issues and progress is going to depend on somebody holding the White House for us.”
This time around, Genth said Clinton’s experience in the Obama administration as secretary of state places her at the top of the list of candidates seeking the White House.
“There is no human being alive and breathing on this planet Earth that has her resume,” Genth said. “Not Abraham Lincoln, not Thomas Jefferson, not Ronald Reagan, not Bill Clinton, nor Barack Obama. No one has — male or female, or for that matter worldwide — that resume of hers now. And so, I think that makes her extremely qualified.”
In the camp of taking a cautious approach to Clinton is John Klenert, a gay D.C. Democratic activist who was a member of the national LGBT committee for Obama in 2008.
Klenert said Clinton is the only Democrat at this point who could win the White House, but added he’s “not particularly thrilled with the way things are happening now with the campaign,” taking note of recent criticism that Clinton avoids media questions.
“She’s not the best speech person, but that said, she has seemed to improve her communications skills at least one-on-one with people and doesn’t come across as what seemed to be plastic,” Klenert said. “I look at it this way, the nomination is hers to lose at this point. Will she win in November? God, I hope so, but that’s a lifetime in politics.”
Among the things that Klenert said he would like Clinton to address is voting rights for D.C. in Congress as well as whether she’ll break another glass ceiling by appointing for the first time an openly LGBT person as a Cabinet member and an out lesbian as a U.S. ambassador.
But a significant portion of Obama’s 2008 gay supporters say they’re fully behind efforts to elect Clinton to the White House.
California Assembly member Evan Low, who was also a member of the national LGBT committee during the 2008 primary, said Clinton is his “candidate of choice” for this snapshot in time.
“She’s had a record of leadership not only in the Senate, but also as secretary of state to really promote a lot of issues that we care about in the LGBT community,” Low said. “I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for individuals, such as myself and others, to rally behind her candidacy.”
Low, who in his previous capacity as mayor of Campbell, Calif., was the youngest openly gay, Asian-American mayor in the country, pointed to her leadership on LGBT issues at the State Department, which he said “bodes well.”
Stampp Corbin, a San Diego-based Democratic activist and publisher of San Diego LGBT Weekly, was a stalwart supporter of Obama, but said he’s now “100 percent” behind Clinton.
“To be honest, I think that she’s moved significantly,” Corbin said. “She’s in the right place with respect to LGBT issues, and that is of major importance to me. I’m not a one-issue voter, but that is the issue that is at the top of my list. I don’t understand people if they’re gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, I really don’t understand how your equality is not the most important thing to you.”
Corbin said he picked Obama over Clinton and became co-chair of the 2008 Obama National LGBT Leadership Council because of “personal connections” to the Obamas, noting he and Michelle Obama attended the same high school in Illinois.
Among his duties for the campaign were drafting policy papers for the campaign on LGBT issues and he helped guide the campaign through the controversy after it hired pastor Donnie McClurkin, an advocate of “ex-gay” therapy, to help rally evangelicals in South Carolina.
“He has been very deliberate about what he’s gotten done, and he’s gotten it done without a lot of fanfare and all of that, where people were complaining 100 days in,” Corbin said. “And of course, they’re going to now all take credit for putting pressure on the president as he asked, but it was just a bunch of people flapping their gums and not giving the president his due in time to get to the issues that he felt were important.”
Another LGBT advocate who backed Obama over Clinton in 2008 was Tobias Barrington Wolff, a gay University of Philadelphia law professor and civil rights lawyer who served as chair of the national LGBT policy committee. Although he had no formal role in the administration, Obama himself said during a Pride event at at the White House last year Wolff has “been advising me since my first presidential campaign and has had a great impact on my administration and how we’ve thought about a bunch of issues.”
Wolff declined to comment for this article, but gave an interview in 2008 to the gay blog Queerty in which he discussed the distinction between Obama and Clinton. Although he called Clinton a good candidate and gave “the Clintons” credit for granting access to the White House during the 1990s to gay people, Wolff reportedly said that was only half of the story.
“The bad story, of course, is the actual result that the presidency produced: the only two occasions in American history when anti-gay policies were written into the statutes of the United States,” Wolff said. “I think the story of the gay vote in this election, once again, has been the story of a familiar name, a familiar brand and then gay and lesbian voters having to learn about somebody new. I think the more LGBT people learn about Barack’s record on LGBT equality and HIV/AIDS and the way that he talks about LGBT equality to general audiences, the more excited they become and the more they switch over to his side.”
Wolff was reportedly also critical of Clinton’s position that she would seek to repeal only Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act as opposed to the entire law. He was quoted as saying, “It is incomprehensible to me that she continues to support vicious anti-gay legislation.”
Another prominent gay Obama supporter in 2008 was David Mixner, who supported Bill Clinton during the 1990s, but had a falling out with him after he signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law.
Mixner said he couldn’t comment for this article because he’s on vacation in Italy, but in 2008, he weighed in on the race to The Advocate.
“Moving from one candidate to another is never an easy process, but the times demand that we all participate fully and completely to bring about change,” Mixner said. “Originally, my support went to Sen. Edwards because of the war in Iraq. For the very same reason, I am supporting Senator Obama. This is not even a close call for me.”
Two major Obama backers in 2008 in California were Rufus Gifford and Jeremy Bernard, who were then a couple and raised millions for the campaign. Once the administration was underway, Gifford became U.S. ambassador to Denmark and Bernard became the first-ever male White House social secretary.
Bernard didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article, but Gifford said via email he thinks favorably of Clinton, although he could provide no official comment.
“All I will say is that I have always liked and respected Secretary Clinton very much,” Gifford said. “I think she is a remarkable public servant.”
Concluding her speech in Mason City, Iowa on Monday, Clinton acknowledged disagreements on the way individuals seek to move the country forward, but said she wants to be the candidate leading the way.
“We can disagree, and we will,” Clinton said. “We’ll have all kinds of arguments even about the best things to do, but we should be coming from a place of love, of loving our country and respecting one another. And we have to rebuild this feeling in our country. We have too much work to be done. We have too many people who deserve a better shot at a future for themselves and their families. I want to be their champion, and with your help, I will get up every single day to make sure the country we love is the country we deserve to have.”