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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

The Ashcroft Aftermath

Most of us knew or suspected that John Ashcroft would become U.S. Attorney General before it became fact.

The votes were just not there. The Republicans held firm and the Democrats could not hold it together to bring solid opposition. The nomination ended in Dubya Bush's first important legitimate political victory (his selection to the presidency by the U.S. Supreme Court not qualifying as "legitimate") and an important loss for gay people and their supporters, as well as many other civil rights groups.

But a battle lost does not necessarily mean the war has to be forfeited. Let's look at what we can learn from the experience.

My involvement was to send out e-mails expressing my opposition, as the parent of a gay son, to the nomination of Ashcroft. These were mailed to 40 U.S. senators. I could not find e-mail addresses for eight, mostly new ones, including Thomas Carper, D-Del., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Mark Dayton, D-Minn., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., John Ensign, R-Nev., Jon Corzine, D-N.J., Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and George Allen, R-Va. I also could not find current ones for Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Larry Craig, R-Idaho. But still, 40 senators represented 80 percent of the vote, which I felt was a fairly good mailing effort for an individual with no staff and limited time.

The first thing I learned is that some senators will not answer your e-mail if you are not from their state. Some of these will send you a form letter thanking you for whatever it was that you were writing about and stating their extreme sadness at not having enough time to answer e-mail if it doesn't come from one of their constituents. I would say about a third of the senators I wrote to at least had the decency to send a form mailing along these lines.

The next thing I learned is that the two senators from my home state of Ohio --- Republicans Mike DeWine and George Voinovich --- WILL NOT EVEN GIVE YOU THE COURTESY OF A FORM E-MAIL EVEN IF YOU ARE ONE OF THEIR CONSTITUENTS! Senators, I'm still waiting for a reply of some kind and I'm very disappointed you did not have one of your many employees at least take the time to respond. Is it because I identified myself as a gay supportive father? I hope all the fellow Ohioans who are on the mailing list of this column will take note of my experience --- the two senators from the Buckeye State were too busy to respond to a constituent's politely worded concerns.

I feel I should also acknowledge three senators who sent e-mails that were obviously form letters, but which at least acknowledged that I was writing about the Ashcroft nomination and answered some questions about how they were going to vote. By coincidence, all three senators are women, but that's about all they had in common.

The first was Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who made her feelings about Ashcroft quite clear:

" ... I will oppose (the Ashcroft nomination) for the following reasons," she wrote. "It is divisive and, given Senator Ashcroft's strict adherence to his ideology, I believe there are solid reasons to expect that the people of this country will not be protected and served as they exercise their civil rights, human rights, consumer rights, their right to choose, their right to be free from gun violence and their right to a clean environment."

I couldn't have said it better myself, senator. Boxer deserves credit, along with Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., for being the most outspoken among the senators opposed to Ashcroft. She gets bonus points for a courteous response to the issue, even if I am not among her constituents. TAKE NOTE, MR. DeWINE AND MR. VOINOVICH.

I also give the courtesy bonus points to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who at least gave me an answer that dealt with the issue, even if it was not the answer I would have liked:

" ... I fully support Senator Ashcroft's confirmation and believe he will do an admirable job upholding the laws of the United States as this country's attorney general."

NOW WHY COULDN'T DeWINE AND VOINOVICH HAVE BEEN RESPECTFUL ENOUGH OF A CONSTITUENT TO DO THAT? Sure, I knew that were Ashcroft supporters when I wrote to them but it would have been nice to at least have received a postcard that says, "Thanks for your opinion, but no thanks. Ashcroft's my man." So much for compassionate conservatism. Or maybe Dubya's philosophy hasn't trickled down to the state level yet.

Finally, the most interesting response came from Senator Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., the widow of Gov. Mel Carnahan, the dead guy who defeated Ashcroft in his bid for re-election to the senate. Senator Carnahan, still in mourning for her husband, showed a lot of courage, class and political savvy in her actions during the Ashcroft hearings and in her response to my letter:

"I am concerned about the increasingly bitter tone that surrounds the senate confirmation process of presidential nominees," wrote Carnahan, who introduced Ashcroft as a nominee to the senate. "I feel that all appointees should have a full and fair hearing before any judgments are rendered. We should do everything in our power to ensure that the nominations process does not discourage honorable men and women from agreeing to serve."

"Senator Ashcroft should be afford the opportunity to outline his vision for the justice department and to personally respond to senators' questions," Carnahan continued. "In my view, to render a judgment on this appointment before Senator Ashcroft has had this opportunity would be unfair to him. Therefore, until such time as I have had a chance to hear Senator Ashcroft's testimony, I intend to keep an open mind regarding his appointment."

Like I said, a classy and fair response from a lady who gave Ashcroft a fair hearing and then voted not to confirm him.

Perhaps one of the things that persuaded Carnahan to vote against Ashcroft was the testimony of former senate staffer Paul Offner who contradicted Ashcroft's testimony, given under oath, that he never considered the sexual orientation of a job applicant when considering their qualifications for that job. Offner testified that Ashcroft was not telling the truth --- if that accusation is true, does than mean Ashcroft committed perjury, something the Republicans have made a big deal of in the case of President Clinton? --- and that Offner himself was asked specific questions about his sexual orientation when being interviewed by Ashcroft for a job while Ashcroft was governor of Missouri.

Another factor that may have caused 42 senators to vote against Ashcroft was the testimony of U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel, whose appointment Ashcroft teamed with Senator Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in an attempt to squelch because of Hormel being openly gay. While Ashcroft told the committee that Hormel's sexual orientation was not a factor in his opposition, Hormel reminded the committee members that Ashcroft is on record as saying Hormel's sexual orientation would be "offensive" to the largely Catholic nation of Luxembourg.

These two statements, along with others about Ashcroft's handling of other minority appointments, such as that of Judge Ronnie White, painted a damning picture of Ashcroft as someone who is a bigot too dishonest or too gutless to take ownership of his own words.

I think we also should take a look at the eight Democrats who voted for Ashcroft and maybe try to contact them with the question, "Why?" I'm sure they may have legitimate reasons. Unfortunately, none of them are from my state and so they probably wouldn't answer my mail. (OF COURSE, IF THEY'RE LIKE MIKE DeWINE AND GEORGE VOINOVICH, IT'S POSSIBLE THEY MIGHT NOT ANSWER THEIR CONSTITUENTS' MAIL, EITHER, IF THEY THINK THE CORRESPONDENT'S VIEWS DIFFER FROM THEIR OWN!)

The eight Democrats who broke from the pack include:

(1) Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who issued a statement about wanting to treat Ashcroft more fairly than Ashcroft had treated others. (2) Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, who has a strong religious conservative element among his constituents, although that didn't stop Senator Max Cleland, Miller's fellow Georgia Democrat, from voting against Ashcroft. (3) Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, who was outed as a pro-Bush man when word got out that Dubya liked him so much he offered him a cabinet post, which Breaux declined. (4) Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who I assume is still trying to set up an e-mail site. (5&6) Senators Byron Dorgan and Ken Conrad, both of North Dakota, the state which elects Democrats who vote like Republicans. (7) Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, basically a Republican who forgot to change parties. (8) Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, whose support of Ashcroft is simply a mystery.

While Ashcroft seemed shaken, relieved and a little contrite after making it through the appointment process, I have no doubt that he will recover once he gets settled into the job. However, he and his master, Dubya Bush --- and I use the term "master" with my tongue somewhat in cheek --- have been given notice that they are in a fishbowl which many people, skeptical of their abilities to govern fairly, are watching.

Published February 16th


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