Principle over politics
OMAHA, Neb. — It makes no strategic sense for Bob Kerrey to bring up his support for gay marriage on the campaign trail in Nebraska, where he’s the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat. Republicans far outnumber Democrats here; the state’s voters are socially conservative; his opponents are already smearing him as some effete import from the bohemian wilds of Lower Manhattan; and he trails the Republican nominee in the polls.
He brings up gay marriage anyway. Not every day, but on many of them. Not in response to voters’ questions, but at the prodding of his own conscience.
I got the feeling that his advisers would like him to stop — and that he knows he’d probably be wise to.
But here’s the thing: he’s 68. This race to reclaim the Senate seat that he held from 1989 to 2001, after which he retired from politics and relocated to New York, could be his last. And if he’s going to go down, he told me, he wants to go down fighting for what’s right and for what he truly believes. That means making a pitch for gay marriage.
“What I usually say is, ‘Let me talk to you about the issue of homosexuality,’” Kerrey said over a drink here Saturday night. And then he indeed talks to voters about it, telling them that people are born the way they are and deserve a full complement of civil rights, including the right to marry. It’s that simple.
“People who are opposed to it are going to have to be explaining to their grandkids: Why, why, why was that the rationale?” he said. “We’re going to be embarrassed in 25 years.”
A life in politics often means the death of candor, twisting candidates into disingenuous knots. Barack Obama was for gay marriage as an Illinois state senator in the 1990s, when his audience was one liberal district, before he was against it over the next decade, when his aspirations were national. As Mitt Romney’s term in the Massachusetts governor’s office progressed, his positions on social issues regressed, and he entered the 2008 Republican primaries as a political animal with a whole new set of stripes.
Kerrey has been consistent, starting with his vote in 1996 against the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman. It was signed into law by Bill Clinton.
All 53 Republicans in the Senate voted for it. So did 32 Democrats, including Joe Biden. Most of the 14 Democrats who opposed DOMA were from states — California, Massachusetts — that were unlikely to punish them for it. Kerrey stood out.
“I know that Bob Kerrey looked at this issue as a right-or-wrong question,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who also voted against DOMA. “I remember talking with him about it at the time. With Bob, you just get an unvarnished judgment.”
He’s no across-the-board liberal. In fact, his centrist reputation had many Democrats upset about his decision to run this year. They wanted a bolder progressive.
He didn’t come to his position on gay marriage because of a close relative or Vietnam War buddy. But over the years, he developed friendships with gay people.
Had he sought re-election to the Senate in 2000, he might well have been hurt by his DOMA vote and by his opposition to a 2000 ballot measure in Nebraska that called for amending the state constitution to ban same-sex civil unions as well as marriages.
Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who ran for the Senate seat that Kerrey was giving up, supported the ban. Nebraskans approved it by a margin of more than 2-to-1. Nelson won, and is now retiring after two terms.
Kerrey’s bid to return to the Senate is driven largely, he said, by concerns over the country’s fiscal health and the breakdown of bipartisanship. He is already facing attack ads that preposterously cast him as a carpetbagger, though he was reared and educated in Nebraska, returned here after winning a Medal of Honor in Vietnam, and governed the state from 1983 to 1987. A bridge in Omaha is named for him.
Gay marriage isn’t his primary issue. I just happened to hear that he was mentioning it frequently and gave him a call, during which he said that any commitment to social justice compelled advocacy of gay rights. He told me that he often asks voters: “Do you think anyone in his right mind would choose to be gay in Nebraska?”
After he agreed to continue our conversation in person, an aide emailed to say that an interview couldn’t be arranged. Kerrey overruled the aide.
He knows that he has politically risky positions, including his longtime support of abortion rights, but said, “I think I can be the kind of senator who would make Nebraskans proud.”
If they value principle and valor, there’s no doubt.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.