Ahead of primary contests on Tuesday where the results in California could determine the tone heading into the Democratic National Convention, Sen. Bernie Sanders is facing scrutiny for recent clashes with gay rights leaders.
It remains to be seen whether disputes with former Rep. Barney Frank and Peter Staley, a longtime New York-based gay rights and HIV/AIDS activist, will have an impact in California or other states, but they’re attracting unfavorable attention for Sanders from the LGBT community at a time when he’s trying to make the case for his long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton.
Over the weekend, the Sanders campaign called for Frank’s removal as head of the 2016 Democratic Party platform committee as well as former Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy as committee chair, citing “political and personal hostility.”
“Gov. Malloy and Mr. Frank have both been aggressive attack surrogates for the Clinton campaign,” Sanders campaign counsel Brad Deutsch wrote in a letter to the party’s Rules & Bylaws Committee. “Their criticisms of Sen. Sanders have gone beyond dispassionate ideological disagreement and have exposed a deeper professional, political and personal hostility toward the senator and his campaign.”
Frank was particularly outspoken against Sanders in a March interview with Slate magazine, saying Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years “with little to show for it” and has been “McCarthyite” in urging Clinton to release the transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street.
“I saw one commercial that said the big companies weren’t punished,” Frank reportedly said. “Why? Well, maybe it’s because Hillary is getting speaking fees. So the secretary of state should have been indicting people? I mean, yes, McCarthyite in the sense that it’s guilt by association. He complains about what she did with regards to all this money stuff. Where’s the beef of that?”
In the end, the Democratic National Committee responded in a joint letter from Rules & Bylaws Committee co-chairs Jim Roosevelt and Lorraine Miller, who determined Frank and Malloy would remain in place.
Roosevelt and Miller said they’re “compelled to dismiss” the complaint because the Sanders campaign “does not allege that there was any violation” of the rules established by the Democratic National Committee.
In effect, Sanders sought to remove Frank from the platform committee without proposing an LGBT replacement for him. His removal would leave as the sole openly LGBT voice on the committee Bonnie Schaefer, a lesbian Democratic activist from Florida who’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates, party organizations and super PACs. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz picked her as one of the 15 members of the platform drafting committee.
In an appearance on MSNBC, Frank said Sanders tried to oust him out of spite because the candidate hasn’t received enough votes to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Sen. Sanders is disappointed that he hasn’t won,” Frank said. “He is losing. He is losing not because anything was rigged or because of any trickery, he’s losing because Hillary Clinton has gotten more votes.”
Frank also chided Sanders for his deficit in votes among black Democrats, who have voted for Clinton overwhelmingly in the primary.
“One of the things that Sen. Sanders, I guess, didn’t pay attention to, is that black votes matter,” Frank said. “There’s been a very large African-American vote for Hillary Clinton as well as from others. As a result, she has more votes.”
Michael Briggs, a Sanders spokesperson, insisted Sanders’ attempt to oust Frank has nothing to do with his sexual orientation.
“Bernie Sanders’ differences with Barney Frank are all about policy issues and the role he has played as an aggressive attack surrogate for Secretary Clinton,” Briggs said.
Hilary Rosen, a D.C.-based Democratic activist and Clinton supporter, said she doesn’t think Sanders’ effort to oust Frank has anything to do with sexual orientation.
“I don’t think it was a homophobic attack,” Rosen said. “But tensions are high and Sanders is wrong to criticize Barney’s integrity or ability to be a fair leader.”
Conflict with Staley over Calif. ballot initiative
Meanwhile, the Sanders campaign has come to blows with Staley in the aftermath of a meeting between Sanders and HIV/AIDS activists in which Staley took part.
Although the initial report from HIV/AIDS activists about the meeting was harmonious with Sanders as they declared Sanders committed to making sure access to generic drugs was in the Democratic Party platform, that quickly dissipated after Staley posted on his Facebook page he felt “used and abused” by Sanders as result of the meeting.
At issue for Staley, a Clinton supporter, was the California Drug Price Relief Act, a proposed ballot measure that would ostensibly lower HIV/AIDS drug costs in the state. Sanders issued a statement highlighting his support for the measure in the aftermath of the meeting, but Staley said that was inappropriate because it wasn’t a major topic of discussion at the meeting and activists disagree on it.
After Staley posted his initial remarks on Facebook, he made an additional post quoting what he said was an email from Sanders policy director Warren Grunnels, who allegedly accused Staley of attacking Sanders and of being on the take of Gilead, which produces the HIV medication Truvada.
Further, Staley posted a now deleted tweet from Grunnels in which the campaign staffer apparently used scare-quotes to refer to Staley as an “activist,” accusing him of making a fortune from big drug companies and saying Sanders is running a “campaign of hate.”
Staley later deleted the post after recognizing he did use the phrase “campaign of hate” in an op-ed for the Boston Globe on Sanders. Staley admitted that he sold his website in 2006 to POZ.com, but said since then he’s self-financed and denied he received a fortune from pharmaceutical companies.
Seattle gay rights activist Dan Savage was among those attacking Sanders for the Staley criticism, saying on Twitter, “Millions of gay men alive and able to vote today thanks to @PeterStaley. Attack on Peter from Sanders camp appalling.”
Asked by the Blade whether the Sanders campaign regrets its actions toward Staley, Sanders spokesperson Briggs replied, “He obviously is a Clinton partisan.”
The Hillary Clinton campaign didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the conflict between Sanders and gay rights leaders.
Will conflict impact California primary?
The incidents come just days before the primary in California on June 7. Other states holding primaries on that day are New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey, but California is the jewel in the crown because the state awards 475 delegates.
It remains to be seen whether these incidents will have an impact on the primary. Sanders also faced another incident casting him in a bad light in the LGBT community when a video circulated on the internet of him entering a rally in California to a violent, homophobic rap, but it was discovered to be a fake after the Sanders campaign produced a video of the actual rally and a Sanders supporter admitted he doctored it.
Michael Petrelis, a gay San Francisco-based blogger and Sanders supporter, said as an HIV-positive voter he’s “disappointed” that a Sanders campaign staffer “wildly mischaracterized” Staley, but intends to vote for Sanders on June 7.
“Let’s bear in mind that Hillary Clinton didn’t oppose Bill Clinton signing into law horrific HIV criminalization laws when he was governor of Arkansas and that dozens of that state’s HIV population, many disproportionately black, were and are incarcerated because of those laws,” Petrelis said. “The Clintons sure like locking up folks!”
Polls in California generally show Clinton in the lead. A Hoover/Golden State poll gave Clinton a 13 points advantage over Sanders in the state with a 51-38 margin. But a PPIC poll had Clinton in the lead by only 2 points, suggesting the outcome might be tighter.
Last week, Clinton changed her campaign schedule apparently to stave off a Sanders upset in California, canceling an event in New Jersey to instead return to the Golden State for a five-day swing.
At the national level, Clinton enjoys a commanding lead in the Democratic primary of 2,312 delegates compared to the 1,545 claimed by Sanders, which includes uncommitted superdelegates. Sanders has said he’s basing his campaign on convincing superdelegates to vote for him at the Democratic National Convention if he won their state’s primary contest.
Daniel Pinello, a political scientist at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the results in California will only make a difference if Sanders wins in an unlikely blowout.
“The only chance Sanders has for the Democratic nomination is a landslide California victory, prompting superdelegates to jump off Clinton’s ship en masse — an event which I think is very improbable, but not impossible,” Pinello said. “If national polls persist showing Sanders outperforming Clinton over Trump in November, party elders may ponder whether her high personal negatives create too much of a risk for down-ballot Democratic candidates across the nation — in the same way Republicans are worried about Trump’s negative coattails.”
The LGBT vote in California may be significant. Gary Gates, a former scholar at the Williams Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles, said there are about 446,000 LGBT Democrats in California, which make up 6 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate. (Comparatively, there are an estimated 84,000 LGBT Republicans in California, making up 1.8 percent of the state’s Republican electorate, but Donald Trump has already secured the nomination on the Republican side.)
Pinello nonetheless said he doesn’t think the LGBT vote will be decisive in the California primary.
“With regard to the LGBT vote in California, my hunch is that it will be split between Clinton and Sanders in a way that won’t affect the outcome significantly,” Pinello said. “Clinton has the shield of the Human Rights Campaign endorsement to offset serious questions surrounding her vigilance as chief executive to promote and protect LGBT rights.”