Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 02 February 1998

A CONVERSATION WITH RICH TAFEL
Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans

By Jesse Monteagudo

 

Richard Tafel is Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans (LCR). With 52 chapters in 30 states and more than 10,000 members, the Log Cabin Republicans are the largest organization of lesbian and gay Republicans, Libertarians and independents.

Tafel graduated from the Harvard Divinity School in 1987 and was ordained a minister by the American Baptist Church in 1988. From August 1989 through November 1990, Tafel managed gay Republican Mike Duffy's race for Massachusetts State Representative. In June of 1992 Governor William Weld appointed Tafel Director of Adolescent Health Programs in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In September of 1993, Tafel moved to Washington, D.C. to head the national office of Log Cabin Republicans.

Rich Tafel was in Miami to establish a strategy group think tank - "an education fund that will generate strategic ideas" - allied to the LCR. He also spoke at the Cosmopolitan Community Center's Sunday brunch, where I caught up with him and asked him about the LCR, its policies and programs. 1997 was a good year for the Log Cabin Republicans, who claimed victory in all six of its 1997 Priorities. The first three priorities were the re-elections of three gay-friendly GOP politicians, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. The LCR also successfully pushed Congress to approve an $118.5 million increase for the AIDS Drugs Assistance Program (ADAP), helped pass a bill to reform the Food and Drug Administration's approval process for AIDS drugs and other life-saving treatments, and took part in Senate Hearings on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Tafel addressed the Hearings, chaired by Republican Senator James Jefford (Vermont) of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee.

Tafel called 1997, the year of Giuliani, Riordan and Whitman, "the year of the pro-gay Republican". The 1997 elections were significant, Tafel tells me, "because the two largest cities in the U.S. now have pro-gay, Republican mayors and all three of our candidates won.

Even the Virginia governor's race was indicative, because in a very socially conservative state there was no antigay rhetoric." The 1997 elections, Tafel adds, were no isolated incidents but "the continuation of a trend, because each of the candidates were re-elected. It shows that when a Republican reaches out to the gay community they can get re-elected in a Democratic stronghold." In New York, New Jersey and L.A. "our local clubs took the lead and worked for the candidates on the issues and in each case we endorsed very publicly. In the Giuliani and Riordan races we got 40% of the gay vote and in New Jersey probably close to 50%."

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the 1997 election was the victory of David Catania, an openly gay Republican, to the District of Columbia Council. Tafel attributes the Catania victory to the LCR's "grassroots focus" and "the strong backing of the Capital Area Log Cabin Club." Election results indicate Catania captured over 70% of the vote in heavily gay and lesbian precincts, making it a substantial part of his margin of victory.

Catania is only the latest of a line of openly gay Republican office holders that include Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe, Oregon State Representative Chuck Carpenter, Tempe, Arizona Mayor Neil Giuliano and Dallas, Texas Councilman John Loza. There too, Tafel tells me, the LCR was involved: "In every one of those races we were the leadership group. Except for Kolbe who we strongly supported but who had his own base." Like the Victory Fund, the LCR makes its support of openly gay and lesbian candidates conditional on the candidates' pledge to work for lesbian, gay and AIDS causes.

I reminded Tafel that, while in the closet, Rep. Kolbe voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act. Though Tafel admits that Kolbe voted against us on that issue, he adds that this was "the only issue that he [Kolbe] voted against us. He has generally been supportive of gay and AIDS issues. And I must say he has been highly helpful to us, as an adviser on legislative strategy."

Though the victory of gay-friendly candidates like Whitman, Giuliani and Riordan are significant, the fact remains that the national Republican Party is dominated by antigay, Southern conservatives. In fact, it is unlikely that a gay-friendly candidate would be nominated by the national GOP as it now stands. Here again Tafel agrees, noting that "this is partly true because the first two primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire, have very religious right-dominated parties."

Even so, Tafel is optimistic about the future of lesbian and gay rights within the Grand Old Party. He doubts that conservatives in the Party will try to deny funds to candidates who support gay rights, the way they tried to do with candidates who support late term abortions.

Tafels also disagrees with my contention that the GOP has become more, not less, homophobic, during the past few years: "I don't think that the Party is getting more homophobic. The 1996 Convention was less homophobic than the 1992 Convention. There was no antigay rhetoric and even one of our members, Steve Fong, actually spoke."

Does Tafel find the predominance of Southern conservatives within the Party frustrating? Yes he does, but the conservatives have no monopoly on bigotry: "It is frustrating dealing with intolerance within the Republican Party and it is frustrating dealing with intolerance within the gay community. And we deal with both of it."

Tafel called the LCR a "grassroots focused" organization, and argued that the political frontline is what is happening on the state and local levels. Here in Florida, where the Republican Party is very conservative and antigay, Tafel suggests that we work to "educate [GOP governatorial candidate] Jeb Bush now. People of good will must educate him because he'll probably be your governor. Because it's more important to educate during an election than after someone wins, and the education process takes place during the election. This is when communication has the most leverage." As it turns out, the education process has already begun, according to Andy Eddy of Broward's Log Cabin Club Progressive Gay Republicans. Members of the Broward LCR have met with the Bush campaign, though it is not yet certain whether they will eventually endorse him.

In South Florida the Republican Party is largely Cuban-American, which means that the local GOP has to deal with specifically Cuban-American issues: "That is why the grassroots is so important, because only people at the local level know the nuances and the politics of their local area." In fact at the Center brunch two local Republicans, both Cuban-American, approached Tafel with an intent to start a Miami-Dade LCR chapter. There is no question that a Miami-Dade LCR club will have a strong Cuban flavor.

Tafel disagrees with those who argue that the lesbian and gay community should be allied with other movements on the Left, like the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. "I would say that it depends what your goal is. If your goal is to have an impact in the Democratic Party, then you should built a coalition with other left wing groups. If your goal is to have an impact in the Republican Party, you need to build a Republican coalition that will most effect your candidate. If I walked into a meeting with a left wing coalition to a Republican office I am not going to be very effective." Tafel admits that there are few women and people of color in the LCR, attributing it to the fact that "we tend to reflect the Republican Party."

Most lesbians and gay men, Tafel notes, are more conservative than their leaders. "I think we are a very diverse community. I say maybe a third would be along the conservative spectrum and probably another third would be very liberal and the last third would be centrist or moderate Democrat." Tafel has criticized groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Victory Fund for endorsing Democratic candidates almost to the exclusion of Republican ones. Such groups, says Tafel, "have two options. One is to be honest and say 'yes we are a Democratic club' and be active in the Democratic Party. However, if you really want to create something that is bipartisan you need half of your board to be Republican and you need half of your endorsements to be Republican. Because when Republican candidates hear 'nonpartisan gay', they believe that it is a gay Democrat."

Though Tafel's politics will be considered conservative by many, he is "not crazy about the term because it has so many meanings to so many people. Though I am fiscally conservative, I would say that, philosophically, I am close to Libertarian." In fact, the LCR's support for less government, both on the economic and the personal level, makes the group more libertarian than conservative. Tafel agrees, noting that "in the GOP there has always been a tension between its libertarian wing and its socially conservative wing." The LCR's job is to make sure that the libertarian wing wins.

Recently Tafel wrote an article in the San Francisco Chronicle condemning the sexual rights group Sex Panic! I asked Tafel why he wrote such a divisive and controversial article. He did so "because I was worried that their spokesperson, Tony Valenzuela, was romanticizing unsafe sex and I think this is very dangerous for our community. And I think any discussion about our individual rights must also talk about our individual responsibilities to ourselves and to those we are involved with."

Tafel assured me that, as a libertarian, he was not endorsing government censorship or regulation of gay sexual activity. "If the gay community practices individual responsibility, no one would care what we do in the privacy of our clubs. When we exercise irresponsible behavior that can have deadly consequences, and then turn to the government to help us, then we invite government to interfere in our personal business. So it is not a choice between doing whatever you want or have government control of every part of our lives. We just need to introduce personal responsibility as a value in our community."

"I do a lot of work with young people. They think they can live forever and nothing will hurt them. They tell me that they view AIDS as an 'older man's' disease. They hear how wonderful unprotected sex is and they want to experience it. And the epidemic is rising among that age group."

The LCR is not a chartered Republican club, a state of affairs which is just fine for Tafel. "We have not pursued it. When you are a chartered club you are not allowed to endorse in a primary. And, frankly, this is where most of our action takes place, politically."

Chartered or not, the LCR has a full plate for 1998. "We are looking at two goals nationally. We are looking at how to prioritize AIDS funding to meet the changing needs. And then we are working to get one more vote in the Senate Labor Committee to get enough votes to get ENDA voted out of that Committee. At the local level, a lot of our clubs will be trying to repeal sodomy laws. And of course the 1998 election cycle means there are a lot of people who need our support."

I closed the interview by asking Tafel what he would say to readers who might be interested in the LCR but have not yet made up their minds. "If I were them I would send for a membership just to get a newsletter. Better yet, you can check our web page (http://www.lcr.org) and get the information. And that is a cheap way to learn."


For more information about the Log Cabin Republicans, you can check the web page http://www.lcr.org or write to LCR, 1633 Q Street N.W., # 210, Washington, DC 20009.


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