Queer Democrats Endorse Busby for Congress — Barely
Three-Hour Meeting Also Features Queer History Presentation
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
TOP PHOTO, L to R: Alex Sachs, Tracy Emblem, Francine Busby
The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club narrowly endorsed Francine Busby’s fourth attempt to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from San Diego’s North County area at their regular meeting June 25. The endorsement came towards the end of a three-hour meeting in which the club also endorsed former San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins for the California Assembly seat now held by Lori Saldaña and Assemblymember Mary Salas for State Senate, despite questions from some members that the club shouldn’t be endorsing at all for elections in June and November 2010 until the official filing period for candidates early next year.
“The endorsement should be based on two things: values and viability,” Busby said to the club in her opening statement. “There are three things about viability. One is money; I set a goal of 0,000 for this quarter. One is name recognition: voters don’t want to fire someone” — like Republican Brian Bilbray, who has held the 50th District Congressional seat since beating Busby in a 2006 special election following the guilty plea of Randy “Duke” Cunningham to charges of accepting .4 million in bribes — “without knowing who they’re going to replace him with. The second is my relationships with volunteers and voters. I have been working this district for five years. The third is likability.”
One factor complicating the endorsement was the appearance of a challenger to Busby in the Democratic primary: Tracy Emblem. “I think it’s going to take a fresh voice and a fighting spirit to beat Bilbray,” she said. She pointed to her direct experience with Queer issues — “ I had a Gay brother who died of AIDS in 1991 and I was at his marriage in the hospital in 1990,” she recalled — her work as the appellate attorney for Ken Marsh, who was unjustly convicted of murder and spent over 20 years in prison for the death of his girlfriend’s two-year-old son, later ruled an accident, and her endorsement by the Plumbers’ and Pipefitters’ Union. “They believed in me, and I’m asking all of you to look at me,” said Emblem, who asked the club to delay its endorsement.
Club members questioned the candidates on their former party affiliations — “Both candidates admit that they haven’t been lifelong Democrats,” club vice-president for political action Alex Sachs said — and their stands on Queer-rights issues, notably marriage equality, a Trans-inclusive federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring Queer people from serving openly in the U.S. military. The questions on “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality were aimed not only at getting the candidates to commit on record but to pledge to make their stands known in a district with a culturally conservative reputation.
“’Don’t ask, don’t tell’ has become a national security issue,” Busby said. “When they let colonels and translators go, that’s absolutely unacceptable. People are starting to understand.” On the marriage equality issue, Busby stated, “People’s choices on marriage are up to them.” In a later question, Busby said that she had helped organize major fundraisers against Proposition 8 in North County and had lent her lists of Queer contacts to those events. She also said she had heavily publicized the No on 8 campaign in her newsletter, The Buzz, and published the dates, times and locations of No on 8 meetings. Emblem, by contrast, said only that she’d driven with a No on 8 bumper sticker and got her children to vote against it.
Busby was asked why she didn’t explicitly endorse equal access to civil marriage for same-sex couples when she filled out the club’s questionnaire, as Emblem did. “I do support civil unions,” Busby explained. “I do think in this country we have to define civil marriage, as opposed to religious marriage, and as a federal candidate I would be asked two specific things. Would you support DoMA [the Defense of Marriage Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states]? I would not support the Defense of Marriage Act. I would support marriage being available to every man and woman, or man and man, or woman and woman, because marriage should be a civil right for all people. I support civil marriage for same-sex couples.”
“The right to form a family is such a basic right that nobody should be able to deny that,” Emblem said. “That is a right I will fight for.” In their closing remarks, Busby stressed her experience as a candidate and ability to raise money, and Emblem cited her own professional experience in support of her viability as a candidate. “I’ve written 300 writs and appeals,” Emblem said. “I’ve appeared before the California Supreme Court. I want you to look at me. I have hired a professional team from Washington, D.C. to work with me on my campaign. I’m going to organize and target precincts. It’s too early to endorse in this race.”
The club’s debate on the endorsement was highly intense and emotional, and featured the rare spectacle of two former club presidents coming out on opposite sides. “I would like your consideration to vote for no endorsement,” said Stephen Whitburn. “We have a candidate [Busby] who’s likely to have the support of the party establishment, and another [Emblem] who’s more likely to support our issues. Busby dodged the question of marriage equality, and only when she was pressed tonight did she say she would support civil marriage [for same-sex couples]. We need candidates who will forcefully stand up for our right to marry. We should not get behind a candidate at this time who’s tepid on marriage equality, especially when there’s another candidate who is solid and outspoken on it.”
“Francine is strong on our issues,” said Andrea Villa. “The idea here is she is viable, we know her she knows us, and perhaps now [that she’s running] the state Democratic party, as well as the county party, will get behind this race. She is a strong Democrat running against a strongly supported Republican wonder boy. I believe she came closer than anyone else had, and as much as the universe revolves around me and around this club, we are not the only Democrats in the room. There are other important progressive issues in this room. We are very important constituents, and I believe that if we are going to get that man [Bilbray] out of that seat, we need a winning candidate now, and that means endorsing tonight.”
Allan Acevedo, president of the Stonewall Young Democrats — the club’s affiliated youth organization — also came out for Busby. “Money is an important part of the campaign,” he said. “Francine may be a three-time loser, but so was Harvey Milk and he won the fourth time out.” Acevedo also attacked Emblem for having duplicated copies of her answers to the club’s questionnaire and given them to everyone at the meeting, calling it “a waste of resources” — a criticism even another Busby supporter, Michelle Krug, thought was misplaced.
“I have to go with no endorsement,” said Lisa Kove, the club’s volunteer chair and a major activist in the local No on 8 campaign as well as for marriage equality since the election. “In No on 8 I called and e-mailed Francine to ask her to put ‘Vote No on 8’ on her newsletter or her Web site. I asked her 20 times and she did not. The last time she said she had lots of causes and that was only one of them. We will look horrible if we endorse someone who will not support us.” Later former club president and current San Diego Democratic Party chair Jess Durfee said that Busby had published in her newsletter the state party’s endorsements on the propositions on the November 2008 ballot, including No on 8 — and that she publicly opposed the initiative while serving as his vice-chair.
The club’s two-step endorsement process requires members to vote on whether to endorse in a particular race at all. Then, if the motion to endorse passes, the club then votes on whom to endorse. The vote to endorse passed with 30 in favor, 24 opposed and two abstentions. The first vote on whom to endorse went similarly, with 30 votes for Busby, five for Emblem and 25 for no endorsement — leading to another round of debate in which one Busby supporter said Emblem’s backers were being hypocrites for voting for no endorsement instead of to endorse Emblem. On the second ballot, Busby picked up six more votes and squeaked past the club’s 60-percent threshold for an endorsement with one vote to spare — 36 votes to 22 for no endorsement.
The controversy over the Busby endorsement stretched the total time of the meeting to almost three hours and overshadowed several less controversial endorsements. The club endorsed openly Lesbian former City Councilmember Toni Atkins in her candidacy to replace termed-out Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, with 50 votes in favor, three against and one abstention. It also endorsed Assemblymember Mary Salas to replace another termed-out legislator, Denise Moreno Ducheny, in the 40th State Senate district, by a similarly lopsided margin: 55 votes in favor, two against and three abstentions — an early endorsement driven largely by the fear that former Assemblymember Juan Vargas, considered much less Queer-friendly than Salas, will run against her in the Democratic primary for the seat.
The club was also scheduled to consider a number of so-called “friendly incumbent” endorsements — either openly Queer officials in other states or regions, or officeholders whose track records show so great a commitment to Queer community issues the club’s executive board sees no need to subject them to the usual process of a questionnaire and a personal appearance. Some of the “friendly incumbents” are also national or state officeholders for whom the requirements are waived because they’re impractical. The club gave “friendly incumbent” endorsements to local Congressmember Bob Filner, state treasurer Bill Lockyer, state controller John Chiang, secretary of state Debra Bowen and openly Queer officeholders Assemblymember Manuel Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and Congressmembers Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Jared Polis (D-CO).
But three people on the list of proposed “friendly endorsement” incumbents were pulled by club members for later debate — which, since the meeting went on so long, was postponed to the next scheduled meeting on July 23. They were local Congressmember Susan Davis, Massachusetts Congressmember Barney Frank and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The decision to pull the Davis endorsement may well have reflected the frustration of certain club members who tried to revisit the early endorsement she got last time when a progressive primary opponent emerged and challenged Davis’s votes for the so-called “supplemental appropriations” bills to fund the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The person who asked to pull Boxer cited her joining the overwhelming U.S. Senate vote to deny President Obama his request for million to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The meeting opened with a presentation by San Diego State University history professor and San Diego Lesbian/Gay Archives chair Frank Nobiletti commemorating the 40th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York. Nobiletti recalled that when the Stonewall riot happened, he was living in New York but so deeply closeted that “I saw the little item on page 10 in the New York Times and slammed the paper shut lest anybody catch me reading it.” He also reviewed some of the early history of Queer organizing in San Diego.