Gay Gala Offers Pulpits for Two Favorites in Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton

Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton appear at a rally in support of Barack Obama on Oct. 12, 2008, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Photographer: Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

As Joe Biden nears a decision on whether to seek the White House in 2016, gay rights advocates got a side-by-side look on Saturday of the would-be candidate and the front-runner in the Democratic race, Hillary Clinton.

Biden delivered the keynote speech at the gala dinner in Washington for the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBT civil rights and lobbying group. His appearance followed one early Saturday by Clinton, who bowed out of the headline role to appear on Saturday Night Live.

“It’s great to be back with the other HRC,” Clinton, whose maiden name is Rodham, told several hundred gay rights leaders from around the U.S. “There’s no one I’d rather share my initials with than all of you.”

Clinton, to applause and, at one point, a chant of “Hillary,” called on Congress to pass the Federal Equality Act, which would outlaw discrimination against LGBT people in fields including housing, employment and public accommodation.

“As president, I will fight for it, and I hope many of you will be with me when I sign it into law,” said Clinton.

Biden also pledged support for the measure. Amid scattered calls of “Run, Joe, run!” the vice president didn’t discuss his own 2016 plans, rather jabbing at the Republican field -- there are “ homophobes” who are “still left. Most of them are running for president, I think” -- and praising Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, who was honored at the event.

“You look and you see a man like Tim Cook who has turned the world upside down, who understands that equality is not only a moral imperative but it’s the heart of our economic might and our dynamism,” Biden said.

He also turned to the topic of guns, decrying the “senseless” violence of an Oregon community college shooting and asking the audience to “speak up” on the issue of gun law changes.

Clinton and Biden both enjoy broad support from gay and lesbian voters and donors, as does Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who so far has offered the most robust challenge to Clinton. She retains an edge with the community over Biden both because of her strong record on gay rights and by virtue of having been on the campaign trail since the spring, said Steve Elmendorf, a gay Democratic strategist who backs her.

“If he decides to run for president, gay people are like everybody else: It’s late,” Elmendorf said of Biden in a phone interview. “It’s the same problem he has in early states and all sorts of constituencies and communities. It’s late in the game and people make commitments and there’s no reason to abandon your commitment.”

‘Honesty, Compassion’

Biden’s best chance at winning support within the gay community, as with the Democratic base overall, is the prospect of a Clinton collapse. Jon Cooper, the national finance chair for Draft Biden, an outside group encouraging the vice president to run, said Biden’s appeal to voters, including gays, is “his authenticity, honesty, compassion, relatability” and a feeling that “he will be the most electable Democratic candidate.”

Still, Cooper, who is gay and was set to attend the Human Rights Campaign dinner, said he “absolutely” tells prospective gay donors that Biden has the strongest pro-gay record of any Democrat in the 2016 field. Earlier this week, Cooper attended a Democratic Party gala with gay donors in Manhattan, where President Obama spoke, and said he was approached by about a dozen attendees who handed him their business cards and told him they were prepared to back a Biden campaign.

‘Baseline of Support’

Gay and lesbian voters are increasingly the domain of Democratic candidates. In the 2014 mid-term U.S. elections, just 24 percent of people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual said in a CNN exit poll that they voted for Republicans, down from a third in 2012.

“The issue of marriage equality has moved from what used to be the ceiling of support for our community to now being the baseline of support that is expected of any candidate or elected official,” Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a phone interview. “We as a community are now looking to say what else? How else do you care about our community?”

Biden, 72, said in a March 2014 speech at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Los Angeles that his father taught him respect for gay people. He recalled looking out the car window as a high school student and for the first time seeing two men kissing.

‘They Love Each Other’

“And my father looked at me and said, ’They love each other. That’s the end. That’s the end,’” Biden said.

Gay voters have forgiven Biden for his 1996 vote as a U.S. senator from Delaware for the Defense of Marriage Act, said Phil Attey, a gay rights activist and Democratic operative. Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, signed the legislation into law. It defined marriage as a union of only a man and woman.

“Absolutely water under the bridge,” Attey said in a phone interview. “We need to understand that politicians weren’t ready to fall on their swords for this issue.”

Biden endeared himself to gay voters in 2012 when he declared his support for gay marriage on the NBC program “Meet the Press,” inadvertently pressuring his boss, Barack Obama, to do the same. The Supreme Court this June ruled gay marriage is legal in all of the U.S.

Rainbow-Striped

Clinton, who adopted a rainbow-striped version of her logo as the Supreme Court heard arguments on the gay marriage case this year, was criticized this week by some gay rights advocates over newly released e-mails from her time as Secretary of State.

Clinton, 67, in 2011 questioned a change in passport applications for children. The new form would have asked for the names of “parent one” and “parent two” rather than “mother and father.” Clinton indicated a desire to head off a conservative “media storm,” according to an e-mail to an aide.

On Saturday Clinton acknowledged that her political priorities haven’t always lined up perfectly with the organization’s.

“You’ve helped change a lot of minds, including mine, and I am personally very grateful for that,” Clinton said.

The former U.S. secretary of state warned that gay-rights gains made in recent years could be at risk from an ideological shift on the Supreme Court if a Republican is elected to the White House in 2016.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the name of the rights group in the 11th paragraph.)

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