Monday, July 06, 2009

Steve Hildebrand: The guy Obama listens to on gay issues

Interview by Rex Wockner
"(Barack Obama) has told me, and he has told ... staff in the White House that pressure's a good thing, so people should continue to put pressure on him." --Steve Hildebrand
"(President Obama) did not read the ... pathetic (marriage) brief in advance but he subsequently has read the brief and was not happy at all with both the direction as well as the language that was used." --Steve Hildebrand
Openly gay Steve Hildebrand was Barack Obama's deputy national campaign director. When Obama started to come under heavy fire from GLBT people in recent weeks -- for talking the talk but not walking the walk on his promises to gay people -- it was Hildebrand who went into the Oval Office for a one-on-one with Obama to let him know what was going down. Steve and I spoke late in the evening July 5 in San Diego.

Rex Wockner:
There's probably nobody who's talked to Barack Obama more about gay stuff than you -- and you've done so within the last couple of weeks. Since he's come under fire for allegedly talking a really good talk but not walking the walk, yet, on gay and lesbian issues ... what did you talk about in that meeting you had with him?

Steve Hildebrand: I told him very clearly that many in the gay community across the country are getting very anxious and that folks have felt very hurt by the Justice Department brief -- the language that was used in it. He reassured me that he will not disappoint the gay community during his time as president, that the promises he made during the campaign are promises he will fulfill, and he was very forthright about his commitment to equality. And, people will accuse me -- probably rightfully so -- that I'm a Kool-Aid drinker, that I believe in this guy, but I've been around a lot of very important politicians in my lifetime and I think this guy is different and I do trust him to do what is right. I also believe that he knows how to get things done, and that he will make a significant difference in a positive way in the lives of gay and lesbian Americans.

Rex: Let's go back just a second to the (controversial marriage-case) brief. Do you have any reason to believe that he may or may not have known what was in that brief before it happened?

Steve: As I understand it, he did not read the brief in advance but he subsequently has read the brief and was not happy at all with both the direction as well as the language that was used -- and that he expects much better from his administration.

Rex: This same Justice Department is going to have to file another brief in (another federal gay marriage) case in October. Do you think it's likely we're going to see something different this time?
Steve: I hope so, I don't know so. I certainly don't profess to be somebody who has intimate knowledge of what's going on at the Justice Department. I hope the outrage that has come -- not just from the gay community but from others -- about how pathetic the first brief was, that we will expect to see something more improved. You know, I have a little bit different perspective. I, like most people, was not at all happy with the language that was used, but better language would not have changed the end result of what the Justice Department was ruling on. I would like to see the Justice Department take a dramatic step and disagree that DOMA is a constitutional law.

Rex: There were some news stories to the effect that HRC cut a deal with the administration to delay the process on Don't Ask, Don't Tell and to work on, I guess, hate crimes first. ... Do you think there's any kind of order for the promises that Barack Obama made during the campaign on things that he wants to get done for the gay and lesbian community. Is there an order that we're likely to see those happen in?

Steve: ... Regarding some kind of deal that was cut, I think that's pretty crazy. Anybody who followed Barack Obama during the campaign and anybody that really knows this guy -- he's not exactly one who's out cutting deals with special-interest groups on the left or the right for the timing of various legislative initiatives. Barack Obama as president and commander in chief is, and will continue to go through, a process, methodically, to get the ducks in a row in order to get the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell done in a successful way that isn't just going to happen overnight. He has to move the minds of the public, he has to move the minds of Congress and he has to move the minds of military leaders. And once that happens, and the ducks are in a row, I believe he can successfully move forward for repeal, something that he feels very strongly about and something that he spoke very passionately about.

Rex: Are we likely to see some other things from the administration or moving through Congress before Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Once again, do you think there's some kind of order ... for the things that we're going to see happening? Are hate crimes going to be first and DOMA going to be last, for example?

Steve: Hate crimes has already passed the House. It's sitting in the Senate. Majority Leader Reid has promised action on it very soon and I hope he'll live up to that commitment. Passing hate crimes through Congress, and the signature of the president, can actually have a real positive impact on people's lives. That's something that's very critical -- and it's something that's really long overdue. So I believe that if there is an order to things, because the House has taken action, because the Senate could take action at any time, that is something that is probably likely to move pretty quickly. I can't say I'm privy to what might be next, and that doesn't always just happen from the White House. You know, Nancy Pelosi as speaker has a real impact on that. Harry Reid as majority leader has a real impact on that, and I have not spoken to either of them.
Rex: In your speech to the National Education Association GLBT Caucus here tonight in San Diego, you came 'this close' to basically putting your fist in the air and saying, "It's time to ACT UP and fight back." What exactly were you talking about? What do you think ... the gay and lesbian community needs to be doing that we're not doing?

Steve: I don't think our voices are as powerful as they should be. I think too many people in the gay community do not push their elected officials as hard as they should. If you had 20 gay people together in a room and asked how many of them actually have reached out and either called, e-mailed or sent a letter to their member of Congress over the last two months, I would say the vast, vast majority of them will have done nothing. My suggestion is that people need to become strong activists, that we need to multiply by hundreds the number of activists we have in the gay community. We need more voices, we need louder voices, and we need to tell politicians at every level we're not willing to take their excuses anymore.

Rex: ... There has been this sort of groundswell of yelling at Barack Obama for the last three or four weeks. Would you include him in this kind of call for stepped-up pressure on politicians, or do you have a faith in him -- a personal faith in him based on your experience -- that he's going to be there for us whether we're nice or not-so-nice to him?

Steve: I would encourage gays and straights alike to put pressure on President Obama, on his administration, to call for action -- immediate action on the laundry list of items that the gay community deserves for true equality in this country. What I don't like is the suggestion by a lot of people that this guy has lied to us and that he isn't fulfilling his campaign promises, when he's only been in office for five months. He can't change the world overnight and -- I'm doing my best to say this without providing excuses -- but this is a president who was handed a larger number of really big issues to deal with at the beginning of his presidency than any other president in history. He's got to get an economy moving, he's got to get the troops out of Iraq, there's a lot of big, big problems. At the same time, he is working within his administration to try and get in a position to get some meaningful things done to help the gay community achieve equality. That does not preclude any suggestion that we should not keep up the pressure. He has told me, and he has told ... staff in the White House that pressure's a good thing, so people should continue to put pressure on him.

Rex: A lot of these things need congressional action, not just him to say things.
Steve: Exactly, and if people want things done, they should demand action from Congress, they should demand action from the president, they should demand action from their school boards, from their city council members, their mayors, their legislators, their governors, everybody. They should demand action within their churches. I don't believe in the kind of civil discourse that ACT UP used several years back. My suggestion is that people ought to be very vocal, they ought to vote with full knowledge and full commitment of candidates -- not just to support but to actually lead on issues that are important to us.

Rex: From some of our conversations earlier this evening, when we were just chatting, I got the impression that you believe that Barack Obama, in his gut, gets the gay thing and sees it as one of -- or maybe even the -- last big civil rights things to accomplish, and that this is somebody -- I mean, I think it would be comforting to the gay and lesbian community to know that he gets it in his gut and sees it as a fundamental civil rights issue and ... by the end of his first four years in office, you think things are going to have changed for the gay and lesbian community.

Steve: I don't think it's just in his gut, I think it's in his heart. You know, none of us can know somebody exactly, but I do believe this guy fundamentally in his heart believes that we should not stop fighting -- whether it's for gay civil rights or any other kind of equality -- until the job is done. ... I do believe that in his heart he will fight his tail off until we've achieved full equality in the gay community.

Rex: There's been all this pressure on Obama but nobody's really yelling at Congress. Why aren't we yelling at Congress too?

Steve: Everybody should use their voices very loudly until we've achieved full equality. I do think that we've seen disappointment from politicians -- Democrat and Republican -- for too many decades now of people who say, "Yes, we support equality," but then they go to Washington and they don't do anything about it. They're too wrapped up in figuring out how to win their next election and they're not concerned enough about doing what's right for the American people. And I think, I firmly believe that politicians should stop being so spineless and start being real leaders, and actually doing things that have a dramatic impact in a positive way on people's lives.

Rex: Make it specific. What would you like to see Pelosi and Reid do next week for gay people?

Steve: Next week they should pass employment nondiscrimination, they should pass the Safe Schools (Improvement) Act (of 2009) to address the bullying issue, and they should pass hate crimes, and put those three pieces of legislation on the president's desk, where he would sign them immediately.

Rex: Why haven't they done it?

Steve: I firmly believe they haven't done it because too many members of the House and Senate don't have the political courage and the political will to take those votes. They believe those votes are too hard and will hurt them in their re-elections, and they're more concerned about their re-elections than they are about actually helping people.

Rex: When you look at, say, the Massachusetts example: Not a single legislator who voted for the gay issue of all gay issues -- same-sex marriage -- lost a seat in Massachusetts as a result of that vote. Do you think this fear that voting in favor of gays is going to lose you your next election is kind of overblown in the eyes of members of Congress and, if so, why?
Steve: I don't believe it's just gay issues that politicians are afraid of. You're seeing politicians who are afraid to do the right thing when it comes to climate-change legislation, you're already hearing various members of the House and the Senate go south on health care reform because they think it might be a vote that's going to be tough for their re-election. These folks, when they're running for office, say they want to do important things and have a real impact, but then they go to Washington and all they do is focus on their re-election.

Rex: A lot of these gay ... things, if they were put on his desk tomorrow, he would sign them. So, this is really Congress.

Steve: Well, I certainly don't want to let President Obama off the hook. He needs to use his bully pulpit, he needs to use pressure on Congress, he needs to help move public opinion, but Congress needs to step up to the plate and do their part too.

Rex: What do you do to make Congress act? ... How do I get my congresswoman's attention?

Steve: You should call her office, you should show up at events, whether it's a town hall or another event that she might be at, and try to address her in person, you should write her a letter, you should write a letter to the editor, which calls upon her to take action that you're requesting, you should not make a contribution to her campaign, and encourage others not to contribute, if she is not showing leadership on our issues. There's a whole bunch of ways.

Rex: Thanks, Steve. (Photos by Rex Wockner)
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