Republican presidential candidate George Pataki may be trailing in the polls, but that isn’t stopping him from insisting he’s the best candidate for the job — including for LGBT voters.
The former New York governor and 2016 presidential hopeful made his pitch for LGBT support Thursday afternoon during a sit-down interview with the Washington Blade at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Pataki, 70, issued a call for unity when asked why LGBT people should support him when they have allies in Democratic presidential candidates like front-runner Hillary Clinton, saying, “with any constituency you look at a broad range of issues.”
“I think when you look at the challenges facing our country, I’m the right person to bring us together, to convince Americans that we are one America, that we have a common future, and that we have enormous challenges facing us as a country, but that when we stand together we can overcome those challenges,” Pataki said. “Whether they’re protecting our national security, growing our economy, getting Washington out of our lives, creating public confidence in the future of America and the American Dream again — I think these are things that I know I can do.”
The self-described libertarian made note of his bipartisan record as a thrice-elected New York governor and said he could work across party lines to bring the country together.
“I was able to govern, change the state as a Republican in a very Democratic state, so the challenges in Washington don’t faze me, the challenges facing our country don’t faze me,” Pataki said. “When we stand together we can accomplish anything.”
On LGBT issues, Pataki wouldn’t take any policy position that would advance LGBT rights, but he said the Republican Party should avoid attacks on LGBT people.
For example, Pataki stopped short of saying he supports the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage. At the same time, he declined to support, unlike other Republican presidential candidates, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to undermine the decision.
“I accept the ruling,” Pataki said. “I don’t think we should — Republicans or others — shouldn’t seek a constitutional amendment to overturn it. I happen to think that change is best made by the states through the legislative process, but the court has ruled, the decision is done and that is the law of the land.”
Despite media speculation that Pataki may come out in support of same-sex marriage, he denied that was the case.
“Personally, I think marriage is between a man and a woman, but I accept the fact that the court has ruled and that is the law of the land,” Pataki said.
Pataki’s interview with the Blade took place less than an hour after Democrats on Capitol Hill announced the introduction of the Equality Act, which would enact sweeping non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in all areas of civil rights law.
Asked whether he would support the legislation, Pataki demurred, but pointed to his signature in 2002 on the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York, which prohibits bias on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit and the exercise of civil rights.
“First of all, for 20 years, Democrats tried to get that legislation in New York,” Pataki said. “I got that legislation through, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, and signed it into law in New York. I haven’t seen the federal legislation. I guess it’s brand new. My general philosophy is that I’d like to see things done at the state level as opposed to federal mandate, but I will take a look at that.”
Reflecting on passage of the legislation at the state level in New York, Pataki said opposition to passing the bill faded away under his leadership as governor.
“For the longest time, there was opposition, but I provided the leadership and explained quite simply it was about having equal protection under the law for everyone in New York State,” Pataki said. “It was amazing how quickly that legislation and that opposition largely fell into place and accepted the fact that we’re going to add gays and lesbians to the existing civil rights law protections.”
It should be noted the sexual orientation non-discrimination law in New York lacks protections on the basis of gender identity, making New York one of three states with sexual orientation protections, but nothing for transgender people. In 2009, then-New York Gov. David Paterson signed an executive order expanding New York’s law to cover transgender people, but LGBT advocates have thus far been unsuccessful in adding gender identity to the statute itself.
Other LGBT advances that Pataki championed include signing a hate crimes protection measure into law in 2000 and an executive order after the terrorist attack on 9/11 authorizing crime victim awards to anyone who could show a sufficient relationship to a victim in the attacks, including same-sex relationships. In 2002, the Empire State Pride Agenda, a New York-based advocacy group, endorsed Pataki over Democratic challenger Carl McCall based on the Republican’s record.
From the beginning of his campaign, Pataki has said attacks on gay people are unproductive for the Republican Party. In his campaign video in March, the candidate said discussion of abortion and gay rights are a “distraction” for the GOP that will only help Clinton win in 2016.
Pataki made the case that the federal government should stay out of those issues when asked by the Blade to elaborate on his “distraction” remarks.
“Too often, Republican candidates focus on trying to overturn Roe v. Wade, trying to have Washington rule for — this is pre-Supreme Court decision — tell every state what its laws on marriage have to be,” Pataki said. “In New York State, through the political process, New York legalized gay marriage. I don’t think it was the federal government’s right or the correct thing to tell New York what it had to do. So that was the point was that our candidates should be focused on challenges facing our country as opposed to dealing with issues that I believe are appropriately left to the people and the states.”
Despite his more moderate tone on gay issues, Pataki has also tried to appeal to social conservatives. Last month, Pataki was a last-minute addition to the list of speakers at the Faith & Freedom Coalition “Road to Majority” conference in D.C., where he talked about efforts to uphold religious freedom as governor.
Although the event was organized by groups that seek to curtail LGBT rights, Pataki said he sees no conflict between speaking at the event and seeking support from LGBT people.
“I think one of the things I want to see stopped in this country is demeaning people because they have a different viewpoint,” Pataki said. “A viewpoint that is dominant today might not be dominant tomorrow. I think we have to respect all opinions and tolerance is not just something that we should express when we agree with someone expressing a particular viewpoint. Tolerance is most important when you’re expressing it with people whom you don’t agree with. On strengthening the family, on the need to protect people’s ability to practice their faith, I think those are important rights.”
In the aftermath of transgender athlete and TV personality Caitlyn Jenner’s public transition, Pataki in June took Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to task for his criticism, saying on CNN if people choose a different path in life “we should respect that as opposed to mocking it.”
Asked if he would give voice to transgender visibility as president, Pataki said he’d show respect for everyone, but cautioned against “beginning to identify as a narrow subgroup.”
“I’m not referring to transgender; I’m referring to whether you’re a conservative Republican or any other different groups,” Pataki added. “And we have to stop thinking of ourselves as part of a sub-group and thinking of ourselves as Americans who have a common future and so much more in common. And that requires that we show respect for everyone and allow Americans to make their choices and to live in dignity, and that’s certainly the approach that I would provide to the transgender community and certainly to Caitlyn Jenner.”
In the wake of what may be the 11th murder of a transgender person this year based on gender identity and the violent killing of India Clarke in Florida, who was beaten to death, Pataki said the best way to address pervasive anti-trans violence is the “respect and enforcement of criminal laws.”
“It is a crime. Period,” Pataki said. “It is a act of violence and a felony, I’m sure, in every state to assault someone regardless of motivation. And that person should be prosecuted and put in jail. But ultimately what it comes down to is tolerance and respect.”
Pataki said he would defer to military leaders on whether open transgender service is a good idea following the announcement from the Pentagon that it would the start of process on lifting its ban through a six-month working group study.
“I would defer to the decisions of the military,” Pataki said. “If in fact, they believe that it’s something that can be accomplished without negatively impacting our military, then I’d defer to their judgment.”
The candidate has been a strong critic of the proposed Iran deal endorsed by President Obama, which seeks to to ensure the country doesn’t obtain nuclear weapons through additional oversight in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions.
Pataki said continued human rights abuses in Iran, including the execution of gays and persecution of religious minorities and women, is “absolutely” a reason to reject the agreement.
“Billions of dollars of economic relief will be used to continue their terrorist activities,” Pataki said. “That was acknowledged by Susan Rice and one of those activities is footing [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own civilian population, which is a crime against humanity. So whether it’s denial of basic rights to the people of Iran, or engaging in other terrorist activities in countries around the world, this is a terrible deal not just for the United States, but for the civilized world.”
Making the case that Washington “has too great an impact on the day-to-day lives of ordinary Americans,” Pataki said LGBT people fit into his worldview the same as other individuals.
“They fit the same way everybody else does,” Pataki said. “I’m a great believer in treating people as individuals and treating people and allowing people the freedom to choose their own course and their own path.”