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Human Rights Campaign Forum with the Democratic Candidates for President of the United States

Location: Washington, DC


...Each candidate will appear separately, and in the order in which their acceptance to today's forum was received. Each candidate will have ten minutes—a two-minute opening statement, a three-minute closing statement, and in between I'll attempt to draw them out on their views. It's really just that simple. So let's get started.

Our first candidate to appear is Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. (Applause.) Senator Kerry, you have two minutes, sir.

SEN. KERRY: Sam, thank you very much. I want to thank HRC. This is an extraordinary statement about the journey traveled. I am proud to be here as a candidate for president of the United States, and I think it should underscore the fact that our current president ought to talk to all Americans and with all Americans.

When I think about how to distinguish myself here, I want to sort of just be practical. You are going to have a string of candidates who are going to come in front of you, and they're all going to say, Well, I support this, or I support that. The test you have to make is: Who can be president of the United States, and who will we trust? Who will really fight?

I believe I come to you with the broadest, strongest and longest record of support on issues of concern to this community of any of the candidates running. It began in 1971, after I came back from Vietnam, when fellow vets came out and declared that they were gay, having served in Vietnam. It carried on to 1985 when I became the original sponsor and author of the gay and civil rights legislation in the United States, before Ellen DeGeneres, before Will and Grace, before anyone knew who Melissa Etheridge was, before there had been a march on Washington—when it was radioactive. I was the only United States senator in 1996 who was running for reelection to vote against DOMA (ph), and to go to the floor of the United States Senate and say that it was gay-bashing and it was beyond the dignity of the Senate to engage in that at the time. I believe that my support for ENDA, my support for the hate crimes legislation, and together with Bill Frist I wrote the broad AIDS comprehensive approach to Africa two and a half years ago that would have two and a half years ago put more than a billion dollars into the effort, and had a broad, comprehensive approach. An openly gay man is treasurer of my campaign for president of the United States, and I believe that if I am elected president I can take that oath of office and raise my hand and truly say that I will be a president for all Americans. I ask your support in this effort. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

MR. DONALDSON: Senator Kerry, you support civil unions but you do not support gay marriage. Why not?

SEN. KERRY: Well, I think it's important to do first of all what we can do, and that is hopefully try to pass civil unions, which give all the rights—some 1,000 benefits within the government—of taxes, mortgages, inheritance, visitation—all of those components. And I believe it is important to achieve that. Id o not marriage itself, because as a matter of how I view the world culturally, historically, religiously, I don't believe that that is a distinction that makes a difference with respect to the rights that we can afford under civil union in this country.

I also support federal partnerships to their fullest degree. I think it is a disgrace that somebody like Peggy Neff lost her partner Sheila Hein over at the Pentagon, where terrorists distinguished not at all between Americans, where people who tried to help weren't distinguished—nobody asked, "Are you gay or straight?"—to somebody giving help—but she almost lost her homes because there were no rights. She had to appeal to the victims fund in New York in order to finally have some special adjudication to be able to hold onto the home that she and Sheila bought together. I don't believe anybody in the United States of America ought to have to beg any individual agency to be granted their basic human rights.

MR. DONALDSON: But, senator, if I may draw you out in your answer here, if in your mind there is no distinction between civil union and marriage, why not allow marriage?

SEN. KERRY: There's a distinction, Sam. There's no distinction in the rights that are afforded, but there is clearly --

MR. DONALDSON: Well, where's the distinction then, senator?

SEN. KERRY: The distinction is in a body of America that culturally, historically and religiously views marriage very differently. Marriage is viewed as a union between men and women, and that is a cultural historical view that I believe—that's my position.

MR. DONALDSON: I understand, senator.

SEN. KERRY: And I believe in it, and I think people—it may well be --

MR. DONALDSON: But I'm trying to draw you out.

SEN. KERRY: Sam, well, draw me out. I'll draw myself out. (Laughter.)

MR. DONALDSON: But, senator, you know what I'm going to say—once upon a time --

SEN. KERRY: Let me finish my—let me finish my --

MR. DONALDSON: -- segregation was viewed as the proper way.

SEN. KERRY: Yes, it was. Let me finish my question. What I said was we need to achieve what we can, and then we will see where we are. It may well be that if we achieve civil union, if we have leadership that advances the causes that I have described to you, that we may all of us progress as we have progressed in the last 15 years to a place where there is a different understanding of it. But at this particular moment in time, I don't believe that exists, and I want to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. I want to pass hate crimes. I want to pass federal benefit partnership rights. I want to advance us as fast and as appropriately as I think we can, but I think that one has to respect the current cultural, historical, religious perception, and I respect it.

MR. DONALDSON: All right, let me ask you about the military. You very strongly impose the present system, and believe that gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the U.S. military. But about three years ago you spoke of, and I quote you, "in very rare situations commanders should have the flexibility to remove someone from a unit," meaning if they were gay or lesbian. Do you still feel that way?

SEN. KERRY: No, what I said was different. First of all, Sam, I was one of only four United States senators—and the only United States senator who served in the military who went before the Armed Services Committee and testified to Strom Thurmond and the committee that I thought every single American ought to be able to serve. I believe that deeply, because they have served in every war in the United States of America's history, and it is a crying shame that people with enormous talent and capacity to be able to contribute to the defense of our nation have been denied the right to do so—even against our own security interests, may I add. We have seen people denied the right to be interpreters, to bring their great skills to the intelligence community.

MR. DONALDSON: Well, senator, our time is short. If I misquoted you, please correct me.

SEN. KERRY: I'm going to get exactly the words --

MR. DONALDSON: I don't want to steal from your closing statement.

SEN. KERRY: Well, that won't be hard to do. (Laughter.) I say all of what I say as a preface to understanding what I understand about the military, that there is as process of transition that you will have to go through, and there are certain kinds of unit operations or unit themselves—a SEAL team for instance and a 12- person operation behind the lines in Afghanistan, which if today you just said—Here's your team—you could conceivably have some very real difficulties to get over in terms of the unit cohesion. That's a reality. And you have to transition through that reality, Sam. And all I did was try to be honest with people, which you don't always get in politics—which is to be honest and say I want to make the transition, but I'm sensitive to how we make it, and we have to find the way to show the leadership that gets up there. Indeed Harry Truman desegregated the military, and I have already pledged that I will make it clear that every person in the United States of America will be able to serve in the armed forces of America.

MR. DONALDSON: Thank you, Senator Kerry. It's now your time for your closing statement.

SEN. KERRY: Well, let me say in closing that it is not just the issues of the community that bring you here today, and I know that, and so do you. This country needs to make a better set of choices, on every issue in front of our nation. These people in the White House today do not represent a normal struggle between Democrats and Republicans, because there is nothing normal about the choices that they are making for our nation. (Applause.) They are extreme. No conservative Republican would run up the deficits the way they are. No conservative Republican would in fact allow the line between church and state to be crossed the way they are. No conservative Republican would allow his attorney general to trample on civil rights the way this one has. I believe that they are extreme, and I believe we need to mobilize people in this country to take back our own democracy and to represent the better choices.

I heard Elizabeth a moment ago talk about Robert Kennedy's quote. I quote that all the time because I believe it. Robert Kennedy died the night that I came home from Vietnam, my first tour of duty. And the concept of "why not?" is part of who I am politically. And I believe that we need to ask why not instead of spending $50,000 a year to send kids into a farm system for prison, why not spend $10,000 a year on early childhood education and HeadStart and EarlyStart and SmartStart? Why not the richest country on the face of the planet be able to have health care for all Americans as a right, not a privilege? (Applause.) And when I am president, every single American will have the right to buy into the same health care plan that the president and senators and congressmen give themselves. If it's good enough for us, it ought to be available to every single American. (Applause.)

In addition, I will crisscross this country, and I will hold this president accountable for making a mockery of the words "leave no child behind," when with the stroke of a pen -- (applause) -- with the stroke of a pen he wrote out 12 million kids, because he thinks it's more important to give people earning $315,000 a year a tax cut, and take it out of the choices of building adequate transportation, investing in our cities, cleaning up our environment.

I say that never should our soldiers be held hostage to oil in the Middle East. We need to declare energy independence in the United States of America. (Applause.) And I believe we need a president of the United States who understands how to respect global and international institutions, how to build relationships, how not to ignore North Korea or make the situation worse, not to ignore Africa and come in at the last moment with a partial response to the issue of AIDS, how not to ignore the Middle East and ignore Russia and fissionable materials. I will make our country safer and stronger and more secure than this president, and I say to you we should not be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in New York and Chicago. (Applause.) We need a way --

MR. DONALDSON: Thank you, senator.

SEN. KERRY: Let me just close by saying to all of you that I will also not allow this president and this administration to define patriotism. The flag of the United States does not belong to any party or to any president or to any ideology. He belongs to all of us as Americans --

MR. DONALDSON: Thank you, senator.

SEN. KERRY: -- and I intend to take it back for America, not a party. Thank you very, very much. (Applause.)

MR. DONALDSON: Thank you, senator. Senator Kerry ran over some, but actually I had forced him to do that by trying to pin him down on the question of the military excessively and thus stole his time. (Applause.)

Copyright 2003 Federal News Service, Inc.

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