Why Do Gays and Latinos Support Hillary Clinton?

by Paul Hogarth on January 23, 2008

As the Democratic Presidential race moves to California on February 5th, Senator Hillary Clinton holds the advantage in part because she leads Barack Obama among two crucial demographics: gays and Latinos. But if these groups were more “results-oriented” about which candidate would bring about substantive change for their community, Obama could have an edge. Clinton’s husband signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act when he was President, and she has only promised to scrap part 3 of DOMA – whereas Obama would repeal it entirely. While both have waffled on giving drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, when pressed to take a position Clinton said “no” and Obama said “yes.” Gays and Latinos either don’t know such policy differences -– or else have put them aside in favor of symbolic gestures, high name recognition or top-down endorsements. Before it’s too late, LGBT and Latino voters must look at the issues, and decide which candidate would better pursue their interests.

Clinton vs. Obama and the LGBT Community:

It’s quite baffling why LGBT voters would strongly support Hillary Clinton – but the polls show that they largely do. Queers loudly celebrated Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 because he pledged to lift the ban on gays in the military, but turned against him after he caved on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Every progressive group can gripe that President Clinton let them down, but the LGBT community bears the distinction that he betrayed them first.

In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – which banned federal rights like Social Security and immigration for same-sex couples, and allowed states to not recognize out-of-state gay marriages. He signed it simply to deprive Bob Dole of a campaign issue, and did so at midnight while denouncing it as gay-bashing. Days later, his re-election campaign advertised on Christian radio that he had signed it.

Like all Democratic candidates this year, Hillary Clinton has pledged to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She says that she’s been “on the record” opposing it since 1999 – which raises another question. Her husband was still President back then, which means that she could have used her influence to have him repeal it. While one could argue that the Clintons were on their way out, they could have put George Bush in the awkward position of restoring it once he took office.

Clinton says she would repeal Part 3 of DOMA (which deals with federal benefits), but would keep the rest. That means she would let states discriminate against out-of-state couples, like what California did in 2000 by passing Proposition 22. Her explanation leaves much to be desired: “marriage should be left to the states, and I believe that states are taking action on their own.” Unmentioned was that outside of Massachusetts, the “state action” has been to pass anti-gay marriage amendments.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, would repeal DOMA entirely. So LGBT voters who want to compare the two candidates’ platforms can determine who is better for them on the issues. But Obama also angered queers last October when he campaigned in South Carolina with Rev. Donnie McClurkin – a black minister and self-proclaimed “former homosexual,” who believes it is his mission to turn gays straight. Many of Obama’s gay supporters defected to the Clinton camp when they heard about this.

As an openly gay man, I cannot in good conscience defend what Obama did – and adding a gay black preacher to his campaign circuit after the backlash was pathetic. However, queers must be “results oriented” when choosing a candidate. Did Obama’s appearance with McClurkin take away any of our rights, and did it make it harder to achieve marriage equality? What Obama did was symbolically offensive, but was it a substantive setback in getting the legislative accomplishments we strive for?

Due to her longer time in Washington, Clinton is closer to Beltway leaders in the LGBT community – which explains her many prominent endorsements. The running joke about the Human Rights Campaign is that HRC stands for Hillary Rodham Clinton (though I prefer the moniker “homosexuals requiring cash.”) But as the recent fury over ENDA have shown, many queers aren’t happy with their leadership. Hopefully, they’ll take a closer look at the two leading Democratic candidates and make up their own mind.

Clinton vs. Obama on Latinos:

Clinton beat Obama by 2-1 among Latinos in the Nevada caucus – which bodes well for her in California. Some of that is due to her higher name recognition, and the Clinton family’s longer history with Latinos. In 1996, Bill Clinton speeded up the INS process for thousands of immigrants to become naturalized Americans – so they could vote that November. Because Republicans were engaged in racist immigrant bashing, these (mostly Latino) new citizens voted Democrat in droves.

But anyone can see that Bill Clinton did this move out of pure self-interest to get re-elected. I’m not Latino, but I was one of those immigrants who got my citizenship in 1996 due to the expedited process. I was grateful at the time to vote in November, but what power do you really have if you just reward the politician who figured you would vote for him if you could? The better question should be: did Bill Clinton do anything to substantively help immigrants in general, and Latinos in particular?

His record leaves much to be desired. In 1996, Bill Clinton signed a punitive immigration bill that strengthened the deportation process and imposed mandatory minimum sentences. He also signed Welfare Repeal – which eliminated Food Stamps and SSI benefits for legal immigrants. Like DOMA, Clinton signed the Welfare Bill to deprive Bob Dole of a campaign issue – once again taking progressives for granted.

When asked about the Welfare Bill, Hillary Clinton replied that “the positives outweighed the negatives.” She did not commit to making any changes besides expanding health care for children, whereas even her husband pledged to “fix” the more odious anti-immigrant provisions (while signing the bill anyway.) How much did the Clinton Administration really fight to restore these cuts in Food Stamps and SSI after they were signed into law?

More importantly, what would a President Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama do to help immigrants and Latinos? They both voted for the DREAM Act in the U.S. Senate – so that issue is basically a wash. They also have similar voting records on increasing border patrol. But there is a substantive difference between the two candidates on an issue of high importance to the Latino community: making drivers’ licenses available to undocumented immigrants.

At one debate several weeks ago, Clinton got in trouble for initially supporting New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal – and then saying she did not. After Spitzer withdrew his bill, she said she opposed the idea in principle. “As President, I will not support driver’s licenses for undocumented people,” she said, “and will press for comprehensive reform that deals with all of the issues including border security and fixing our broken system.”

Obama has also danced around the issue, but to his credit did come out in favor. “Undocumented workers do not come here to drive,” he said, “they’re here to work. Instead of being distracted by what has now become a wedge issue, let’s focus on solving the problem that the Bush administration has done nothing about it.” When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer demanded that he give a simple “yes” or “no” answer, Obama said “yes.”

Like the LGBT leadership, Clinton enjoys top-down support from the Latino community’s elite. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, and UFW icon Dolores Huerta have all endorsed Hillary Clinton. There’s no question that the Clinton campaign has done a better outreach job with Latinos that gave her a Nevada victory, and it’s been helped by having more surrogates.

But Obama’s beginning to catch up – and his Latino support is coming more from grassroots leaders at the bottom-up. Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo has endorsed Obama, and took time off from her job to campaign for him in Nevada. State Senator Gil Cedillo, who sponsored the California bill to give drivers’ license to undocumented immigrants, is also backing Obama. The only question now is whether such support from the Latino community is too little, too late.

On February 5th, California will join 21 other states in voting on Super Duper Mega Tuesday on Steroids. Candidates are frantically flying around the country to pick up votes – and under such circumstances, the establishment front-runner is likely to win. But Clinton leads Obama among gays and Latinos who are not voting based upon real policy differences. If they started to do so, we may get a very interesting surprise in the race in a few weeks.

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