Gay men and lesbians in most states would feel lucky to have one
statewide candidate courting their votes. This spring in California
there have been at least three. In a heated race for the Democratic
gubernatorial nomination, which will be decided in the primary election
June 2, candidates Al Checchi, Gray Davis, and Jane Harman have all made
a concerted effort to grab the gay vote and gay dollars. Whether the
courtship extends to key primaries this fall in New York, Illinois, and
Washington State, the result in California has been, for many gays, an
embarrassment of choices.
"People are really motivated around the governor's race because it's an opportunity to move it into the Democratic column
after two terms of Pete Wilson and two teens of George Deukmejian,"
says cdslevoting Robert Barnes, an executive board member of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club, a San Francisco-based group. Wilson,
the current governor, and his predecessor, Deukmejian, both Republicans,
have opposed measures that would benefit gays and have courted the
religious right. "People also perceive, rightly or wrongly, that
Dan Lungren [the state's attorney general, who is running with
little opposition for the Republican nomination! is an extremist and
therefore defeatable. Therefore, folks are really interested in
selecting a Democrat who is good on our issues."
By any standard that would include any one of the three main
candidates. All of them support domestic-partnership benefits and gay
adoption. All of them oppose legislation to ban gay marriages. But mere
weeks to the election, polls indicate there is no clear front-runner.
Harman, a three-term congresswoman, held the lead for a while, only to
slip to a close third when Checchi, a businessman, began running ads
attacking her. The main beneficiary of the ads seems to have been Davis,
the state's lieutenant governor, who jumped from last place to
first with a month to go before the vote.
"It's just all up in the air," says Sherry Bebitch
Jeffe, a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at
Claremont Graduate School. "You can't write off anybody.
It's a very fluid election." The uncertainty is due, in part,
to the amount of money the candidates have at their disposal.
Harman's husband, Sidney, the cofounder of audio equipment
manufacturer Harman International, has a personal fortune estimated at
$200 million. Checchi, the former cochairman of Northwest Airlines, is
worth about $600 million. Jeffe says one of Harman's and
Checchi's strengths in the campaign is that "they can pay for
it." Davis, who has lagged in spending, has a record as an
All of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates have presented
themselves as strong supporters of gay rights. Davis, who is wrapping up
a four-year term as lieutenant governor, has the longest public track
record, having worked in state government online votes since the 1970s. As a member
of the state assembly from 1982 to 1986, he was an early cosponsor of a
statewide gay rights bill, while during his 1975-1981 stint as chief of
staff for then-governor Jerry Brown, he was responsible for shepherding
the appointments of the state's first gay judges. Last year, as a
member of the California board of regents, he was part of the majority
voting in favor of domestic-partnership benefits for University of
California workers. However, he incurred the displeasure of some
activists during the campaign by saying that while he would veto a ban
on gay marriage, he did not believe that the state was ready for
Asked about same-sex marriage while appearing before the Stonewall Democratic Club in West Hollywood, Calif., April 27, Davis said, "I
can't give you the answer you're looking for today, but I
promise you, if I'm elected governor, I will veto any attempt to
block recognition of legally performed marriages from other
states." He also promised to "lead a dialogue" about
recognition of gay relationships and fight for full legal benefits for
Nearly three quarters of the 250 club members present voted to
endorse Davis. "Our community has always had a true friend it could
count on in Gray Davis," says Eric Bauman, club president. As a
sign of how important the gay vote is in the campaign, all three
candidates appeared at the forum to make a pitch.
Harman has won her share of gay support as well, garnering
endorsements from gay politicians such as state assemblywoman Carole
Migden and San Francisco treasurer Susan Leal. She has also won the
endorsement of the Toklas club. Harman has staked her claim for gay
votes in part by being one of the only 67 representatives to vote
against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
About her pro-gay sentiments, Harman told the gay publication
Frontiers: "When I was elected to Congress, I took an oath and I
swore to uphold the Constitution. The Constitution contains [an] equal
protection clause, and I haven't noticed that it says equal
protection of the laws to everybody except gays and lesbians."
"We knew before she was running for governor that she was
willing to step up to the plate and take on the extremists in Congress
on behalf of the lesbian and gay movement," says Barnes. Although
Davis is "a proven friend of the lesbian and gay community,"
Barnes says, club members believes that Harman, a moderate Democrat from
a largely Republican district in the Los Angeles area, has a better
chance of winning in November.
Since this campaign is his first run for public office, Checchi
has tried to make up for his lack of a track record by making extensive
promises to gays, including support for laws banning discrimination in
Lungren, a two-term attorney general, has kept a low profile while
the Democrats have slugged it out. "He doesn't have to do
anything now," says Jeffe. "He's focusing on mobilizing
his base." Lungren has made moral values a part of his campaign
message but has yet to make specific statements about various gay
issues. That, however, could change if he senses the eventual Democratic
nominee is too pro-gay. Says Jeffe: "Maybe he will do something in