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Driving the Wedge

How the gay community has hijacked the governor's race.

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Jim Snyder stood before nearly 200 people at a political rally on the evening of August 25 and told them he'd recently had the "strangest, most disturbing dream." He'd been walking down Halsted Street, he said, when he realized he was being chased by two men, one of whom was carrying a baseball bat. When Snyder turned around, he saw that the men were Peter Fitzgerald, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Al Salvi, the GOP candidate for secretary of state.

"I did what any self-respecting guy would do under those circumstances," Snyder said. "I grabbed my pearls and ran like hell."

In his dream, Snyder was relieved to come upon a police officer. But when the cop turned around, he saw that it was Democratic gubernatorial nominee Glenn Poshard. He asked for help.

"You're not one of us," said Poshard the dream cop. "You don't matter."

Before the rally, a gay Republican activist named Dan Sprehe had put up three posters on the walls of an upstairs meeting room at Ann Sather restaurant. The posters, under the common rubric "Fight the Right," viciously slammed the records of Fitzgerald, Salvi, and Poshard. Gay and lesbian political groups had gathered at Ann Sather to launch a voter-registration effort with the National Organization for Women called VOTE '98. Most of the groups had put aside their political differences for a common goal: defeating Glenn Poshard.

Larry McKeon, Illinois' only openly gay state representative, spoke first, and spoke carefully. He had held a press conference in July saying he couldn't support his party's nominee for governor, calling Poshard's stance on gay rights "reprehensible."

McKeon, a Democrat, indicated he would simply sit out the governor's race. But his actions implicitly endorsed a movement to elect Poshard's rival, Illinois secretary of state George Ryan.

Gay voters have traditionally backed Democrats--indeed, they've become a powerful, if controversial, Democratic constituency. And in most ways the two candidates perfectly fit their party stereotypes. Poshard is a populist with strong union backing who voted against NAFTA and has consistently advocated the interests of working people. Ryan is a downstate Republican, a former house minority leader who once stood in the way of the Equal Rights Amendment. He is usually on the side of big business and has substantial support from the Christian right. But Poshard and Ryan seem to agree on social issues. Both are strongly antiabortion, and they also defend the right to own guns, though Ryan is now against assault weapons. In a contest with so little to distinguish the two candidates, the hot issue has become gay and lesbian rights.

There are an estimated 300,000 gay and lesbian voters in Illinois--or at least 3 percent of the voting- age population--and in a close race those votes could count big. Gay voters, who have long been conditioned to think they have to take whatever they can get, are now setting the agenda. No single party can count on their votes.

More than a year ago, Rick Garcia, cofounder of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights, sat in state senator Penny Severns's office and tried to arrange a meeting with Poshard. A three-term congressman from downstate Marion, Poshard was close to declaring his candidacy in the 1998 gubernatorial race. It had become an election rite in recent years for any candidate seeking a Democratic nomination in Illinois to meet with Garcia and other gay political leaders.

Severns--who died last February--got Poshard on the speaker phone. Though Poshard was cordial, it soon became obvious that he wasn't interested in meeting. Garcia wasn't too surprised: The Human Rights Campaign, a national homosexual rights group, had rated Poshard one of the worst congressmen on gay issues, alongside Republicans like former congressman Bob Dornan and Senator Jesse Helms.

Still, Garcia pressed Poshard for a meeting. He had a lot to answer for on gay issues, Garcia told the candidate, but Poshard again declined to meet with him. And after Poshard won the March primary, Garcia heard nothing from his campaign. He did, however, get a call from Corinne Wood, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. Wood met with Garcia and other local gay activists, including Jackie Kaplan, Ellen Meyers, Art Johnston, and John Chester. "What do we need to do to get your endorsement and your votes?" Garcia recalls her asking the group. "We want to work with you."

But the activists weren't ready to give up on the Democrats. In the spring, the Illinois Federation for Human Rights and the Chicago chapter of NOW sent a letter to liberal lakefront aldermen, state representatives, congressmen, and Mayor Daley's office, asking them to persuade Poshard to modify his views on issues of concern to gays, lesbians, and feminists, particularly his stance on abortion (which he believes should be illegal except in cases of rape and incest), his votes against allowing adoption by same-sex couples, and his opposition to a state housing policy that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Congressman Luis Gutierrez talked to Poshard. So did Senator Dick Durbin. Even Mayor Daley asked him to meet with the gay leadership and to modify his views. The Poshard campaign didn't make a move. Meanwhile, Ryan's operatives continued to come a-courtin'. When gay leaders finally made their decision, George Ryan was their man.

"It was actually a simple decision," Garcia says. "The Republican candidate wanted our support. The Democratic candidate did not."

Ryan has said that discrimination of any kind against gays and lesbians is wrong, but he has yet to support a statewide gay civil rights law, which would ban discrimination in public accommodations, credit, housing, and employment. Ryan has employed an openly gay staff member, and he established a policy of nondiscrimination in his office in 1996. Poshard, on the other hand, has more bluntly talked about "thresholds" of protection against discrimination. He supports a ban against job discrimination based on sexual orientation but not against bias in housing. He didn't adopt a policy of nondiscrimination in his office until this July.

While Ryan and Poshard have refrained from supporting gay rights legislation, the issue has persistently dogged both candidates. Early in the campaign, Ryan was meeting with Christian conservatives, his traditional base, at a country club in Rockford. Two men wearing hooded sweatshirts, their faces covered, motored by in a boat. They raised a sign saying, "The Illinois Gay and Lesbian Coalition Thanks George Ryan for His Support." If this prank was intended to put Ryan on the defensive, it didn't work. Though no such group exists, some conservatives had threatened to jump ship. But Ryan didn't distance himself from gay activists or backpedal on the rights issue. Some activists even claimed that he had legitimately come around to supporting gay rights.

The gay community was turning against Poshard. First, there were the insults, whether intended or not. One aide, Jim Merriner, was fired after suggesting that doctors who found homosexuality to be morally wrong had a right to refuse treatment to gay patients. Then the Sun-Times published a story, reportedly fed by the Poshard campaign, saying that openly gay Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank was coming to Chicago to serve as a bridge between Poshard and the gay community. Frank had come to town in 1994 to campaign for Dan Rostenkowski, even though Rosty had never sought support from the gay community. In the Sun-Times Garcia referred disparagingly to Frank as "Uncle Barney." After Frank's staff said they had never talked to Poshard, Garcia wrote Uncle Barney a contrite letter and resolved to turn up the heat even further on the Poshard campaign. In fact, he turned it up so high that gay rights seemed for weeks to become the only issue in the governor's race.

George Ryan produced a campaign float for the Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade, where it appeared alongside those of numerous aldermen and state legislators who would not normally be described as his allies. When WBEZ radio asked why Poshard didn't take part, campaign manager Josh Silverman said Poshard hadn't been invited.

"That's ridiculous," says one gay activist. "What political leader waits to be asked to come to one of the largest parades in the state?"

Though gay rights was becoming the primary issue of the governor's race, the groundwork had been astutely laid by activists years ago. During the "Council Wars" of the mid-80s, a new wave of gay leaders emerged who, though progressive Democrats by inclination, styled themselves as independent because there was no longer a solid center of power in the Democratic Party.

Inspired by Mayor Harold Washington's gospel of community empowerment, this new breed of nonpartisans formed Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting, the organization that led the fight to pass the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance in 1986 and '87. Following Washington's death, Town Meeting became the main organizational vehicle for the gay and lesbian community. Though its leaders had been Washington allies, they now opposed candidates who laid claim to Washington's mantle, such as mayoral candidate Tim Evans, in favor of establishment politicians like acting mayor Eugene Sawyer. In their quest to pass a local hate-crimes bill, they supported, basically, whoever they thought would win, even backing 44th Ward alderman Bernie Hansen over Dr. Ron Sable, a gay challenger, because they knew that Hansen had power in City Hall. Their strategy paid off in 1988, when the City Council finally passed the rights ordinance.

In 1993, Garcia and the newly formed Illinois Federation for Human Rights hired Michael Killion, a straight man from a conservative Republican law firm in Springfield, as its first Republican lobbyist in the statehouse. Killion worked for them alongside Lana Hostetler, a left-wing feminist who had been lobbying for a state gay rights bill for years. The federation's move may have appeared cynical, but it was certainly effective. Just before Republicans grabbed control of the house in 1994, a gay rights bill made it through. The next year, the federation made even further inroads into the Republican leadership by replacing Killion with Dan Sprehe.

In 1983, Sprehe had been a young aide to Republican state senator James "Pate" Philip's campaign committee. He was sent to Decatur to work with an incumbent conservative who publicly intimated that his opponent was a lesbian. (She wasn't.) The Republican establishment warned Sprehe that the antigay line was dirty pool and they wouldn't support it. Sprehe continued to work for his candidate, who lost.

"I was deeply in the closet," Sprehe says. "It was an extremely hateful experience to go through. I came out personally soon after the campaign."

But he didn't come out in political circles until 1992, when Pat Buchanan delivered his infamous culture wars speech at the Republican National Convention. "It was terrible. I was sitting in my living room and I was stunned. I thought, 'People like me made that speech possible.' I'd invested a lot of my blood, sweat, and tears into the Republican Party, and I couldn't take it anymore." Like a lot of Republican moderates, he ended up voting for Bill Clinton.

Sprehe was working as a lobbyist for the McDonald's Corporation, but soon after the election he returned to politics as an aide to then lieutenant governor Bob Kustra, a moderate who had shown some progay leanings while in the statehouse. "I began making my lifestyle known to a lot more people I worked with," Sprehe says. "But it wouldn't have been right for me to go down to Springfield as Bob Kustra's liaison and say, 'By the way, I'm gay.'"

He talked to a few high-powered members of the state Republican establishment and asked them if he should come out officially. They all told him that it would ruin his career. Then in 1994, Kustra ran for the U.S. Senate, lost the primary to Al Salvi, and went to work as a radio talk-show host. Sprehe had approximately two weeks before he'd be out of a job. "It was looking like Illinois was going to be a more conservative state, and I didn't want to be a part of that," he says.

He went to work for the federation, which surprised his Republican colleagues, "since they didn't know I was gay." He considers his greatest success to be persuading North Shore Republican David Barkhausen to sponsor a gay rights bill in the senate. Pate Philip wanted to kill the bill, but it had so much support he chose not to bring it up for a vote. It effectively died in subcommittee, but activists saw this as progress. "Believe it or not," Sprehe says, "that was a big step."

Sprehe left the federation after a year. "He had major problems with me," Garcia says. "It really had hardly anything to do with politics. He found my style offensive, and I said, 'Big deal. That's tough, honey.'"

Sprehe says: "We worked very well together, but at that point in time, we had real different ideas about how to move forward with the bill. I support fully what they do now. I think they do an excellent job. But I felt like we had differing opinions. It was a matter of style." Regardless of Sprehe's and Garcia's strategic differences, the political climate was starting to change in Springfield. The gay-Republican alliance had been formed.

Garcia and seven other gay and lesbian activists finally met with Glenn Poshard on August 3 at his Loop campaign office. They were joined by Congressman Rod Blagojevich, state representative Carol Ronen, and two members of Congressman Luis Gutierrez's staff. While it became obvious to the group that Poshard wasn't going to endorse a state gay rights bill or change his stance on housing discrimination, the meeting symbolized the incredible growth of gay political power in Illinois. The day after the meeting on the front page of its Metro section, the Tribune ran a huge photo of Garcia flanked by sidebars covering Ryan's and Poshard's positions on gay issues. Gays, and Garcia in particular, had become power brokers.

The increasingly desperate Poshard campaign leaked a memo to a Champaign-Urbana radio station in which the Ryan campaign outlined a strategy to gain the gay and lesbian vote. This included placing anti-Poshard ads in the gay newspaper Windy City Times with money raised by Ann Sather owner Tom Tunney, a letter-writing campaign to key lakefront politicians letting them know that "the community has big problems with Poshard," and the establishment of a new PAC to be called Progressives for Ryan/Wood to "allow us to focus on more than gay issues and also provide some cover from the right wing."

"The goal of this campaign," the memo said, "is to knock Poshard so far back on his heels that he'll never be able to recover."

There were odd parallels between what the memo outlined and the late July formation of a PAC called Progressives in Politics by Dan Sprehe and Tunney. Sprehe says that Progressives in Politics appeared spontaneously, without any Ryan support, pointing out that his PAC is also endorsing liberal Democrats Carol Moseley-Braun for senator and Jesse White for secretary of state. In another case of strange political partnering, Tunney is a long-standing Democrat, albeit a mainstream one, and he says he'd never be used by the Republican Party. Still, with Sprehe and Tunney placing anti-Poshard ads in Windy City Times, just as the memo suggested, their explanations seemed a bit disingenuous.

Rick Garcia says the problem with the Ryan memo was that Ryan's staff was taking credit for events that were happening organically in gay politics; they made it seem like they were driving Progressives in Politics, rather than the other way around. "Their problems have more to do with public relations than anything else," he says. "I know for a fact that Sprehe and Tunney are not controlled by Ryan's campaign. They just didn't cover their butts."

Sprehe is certainly toeing the Republican line, saying things like: "George Ryan has always been known as one of the most loyal politicians in Illinois." He's also saying that there will be real political gains for gays if Ryan is elected.

"You can't sit an election out," he says. "You can't not vote for both candidates. You have to make a choice. Particularly the gay and lesbian community, because we have to build our inroads with the Republican Party slowly and surely. When there's a Republican who sends a signal to us, we have got to reward that person or we'll never have the ability to build a relationship with another party. We cannot pass a basic civil rights law in Illinois without the support of moderate Republicans."

As the Poshard campaign shopped the Ryan memo around, only the gay newspaper Outlines seemed to believe that there was something wrong with Ryan actively seeking gay votes. In an editorial, Outlines publisher Tracy Baim wrote that, as a Republican, Dan Sprehe would probably be supporting Ryan regardless of the existence of Progressives in Politics. "The Ryan campaign is working to get the gay vote," Baim wrote, "but they are lurking in the shadows, trying to pull the strings of the gay community in their direction, without 'hurting' their candidate in the process."

Baim says that gays and lesbians who care about the campaign are in fact deeply divided about whether to vote for Ryan or Poshard. "There is no unity at all in this campaign," she told me. "Anybody that says they can lead the gay community to any candidate is giving themselves more credit than they deserve. Meanwhile, any gay person who would vote for Poshard is holding their nose and hoping for the best. And if you're down the middle, you're seen as being pro-Poshard. I'm certainly not pro anybody. I want a candidate to make a commitment on the record, in public, and not in a backroom....There is a mass of people who will not be led by any gay leader or any newspaper. Most gay people don't even know who their leaders are."

Garcia's willingness to play power politics over a single issue doesn't hold much appeal for Baim, who says most activists are interested in "building coalitions" with other progressive organizations. "There are a lot of gays and lesbians who don't vote that way," she says.

Certainly not everyone at the August 25 VOTE '98 rally thought that supporting Ryan was a good idea. "My vote is not for sale," says Renae Ogletree, the outgoing cochair of Chicago Black Lesbians and Gays. "We can't put anyone in office who's not going to represent our multiple agendas, who's not going to represent black people, poor people, and the lesbian and gay community well."

"I think that the most important thing in this governor's race is that pro-choice women have lost," said Lorna Brett, president of the Chicago chapter of NOW, which is supporting Jesse White and Carol Moseley-Braun. "We're going to start organizing for November four years from now. It's over for pro-choice women. Both [Poshard and Ryan] are awful on choice. They won't even go to 'health of the mother' on abortion. It's rape and incest. We're jumping ship on the governor's race. There is no winning this fall."

Garcia, on the other hand, sees no reason to build a coalition at the present time when his long-awaited prize, the state human rights bill, seems within reach. For the gay political establishment, this campaign is a brutal exercise in realpolitik. It also happens to be a great chance for revenge: Poshard's key strategist, Joe Novak, ran the Vrdolyak faction during Council Wars.

"Maybe I'm just a cynical, jaded political person," Garcia says. "But I see nothing wrong with what the Ryan campaign is doing. That's how people run campaigns. Months ago, when Ryan's people asked me, my advice to them was 'Protect your base, and reach out carefully.' I recommended that there were a number of things that they could do, as I would recommend to the Poshard campaign if they had asked. My advice to both Democrats and Republicans has always been shore up your base and move smart and act wisely. It doesn't benefit anybody when the right wing is riled up. I very much could have written that [Ryan campaign] memo. I didn't, but when I look at it I'm not offended by it at all. It takes into consideration the right-wing elements of the Republican Party, which is George Ryan's base, but it also recognizes that gays and lesbians are an important constituency and that they are going after our vote. Not only do I see nothing wrong with that, I am pleased by it."

Two weeks ago a Chicago Tribune poll showed that Poshard is down 20 points to Ryan and that traditional Democratic constituencies are moving farther away from him. Still, his campaign continues to circulate the Ryan memo as news.

"Poshard is trying to use this thing to blame our group for him losing nearly a third of the Democratic vote in Chicago," says Dan Sprehe. "I'd love to think that, but a group formed five or six weeks ago that's placed a few ads in the newspaper and handed out stickers at a street fair is not responsible for a 30 percent defection from the Democratic gubernatorial candidate."

On August 26, Poshard's campaign published a "Voice of the People" column in the Tribune. Headlined "Poshard on Gay and Lesbian Issues," the essay finally made an attempt to modify some of the candidate's stances. Poshard said that his gay-issues voting record had improved in the current congressional session, and that he had voted to include AIDS and HIV infection as part of the Americans With Disabilities Act. He also stated that he would support a state gay rights bill that excluded housing. His other positions, including opposition to same-sex marriage and extending health and pension benefits to domestic partners, remained unchanged. "Clearly, the gay and lesbian community in Illinois, as other groups who have specific legislative interests, will scrutinize my voting record," Poshard wrote. "But the assertion that I have expressed hostility or have an agenda that is 'anti' any group of people is simply not in my record and most certainly not in my heart."

Poshard spokesman Dave Stricklin says, "The Democratic Party has always had broad and inclusive views. We welcome diversity of viewpoints. That may not have a 100 percent achievement rate for each and every candidate. There will be certain issues on the spectrum that you look at and say maybe the graph is a little bit higher here, maybe it's a little bit lower here. Maybe it's lacking in depth, in my perception, in one area. But I would say that in the vast majority of issues that the Democratic Party speaks to, it is speaking in Glenn Poshard's voice. Just because someone is not 100 percent with a group does not represent hostility."

Rick Garcia says that increasingly, political parties mean nothing. Across the country, prominent Republicans like New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, and former Massachusetts governor William Weld have come out solidly for gay rights. In Chicago, Mayor Daley is a Democrat with positions on social issues that are closer to those of mainstream Republicans. And he has a solid lock on the gay vote.

The elimination of straight-ticket voting has allowed progressive groups to bail on Poshard without worrying about damaging other Democratic candidates.

"You hear Poshard and others talk about unity," Garcia says. "The message they're sending is 'Forget your position on any issue. All that's important is the party label.' Scores of us out here don't care about the Republicans or the Democrats. I'd admit to being a liberal Democrat if anyone asked me. But if my party puts up a fascist pig, I'm not going to vote for him just because he's a Democrat. I've been accused of being a pawn for George Ryan. Now people who know me know that I'm not very controllable. We're not dupes being used by George Ryan. The Poshard campaign says we just have an ax to grind with him. You bet your ass we have an ax to grind with him. He's on record as saying we don't deserve equal protection under the law. That's a pretty big ax, if you ask me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Sprehe photo by Dorothy Perry.

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