By Chuck Colbert
The gay-rights question came near the end of the second debate between Republican Sean Bielat and Democrat Joseph P. Kennedy III in the race to fill the seat being vacated by retiring US Representative Barney Frank in the 4th Congressional District.
Sure enough, sharply contrasting answers from the two candidates open a window into their differing philosophies about the rights of gay Americans and their potential for LGBT advocacy.
"The rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are key parts of the American dream," said Aaron Frechette, editorial page editor of Fall River's Herald Review, who was one of several people serving on a panel that questioned the candidates at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth's Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center where Bielat and Kennedy squared off on Wednesday, Oct 10.
The debate, cosponsored by UMass Dartmouth and MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank, was live streamed over the Internet.
"In order to afford all residents of those rights, Massachusetts is challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], which forbids federal recognition of same-sex marriages that are performed in Massachusetts and other states," Frechette continued.
"This is two-part question," he said. "Would you support repeal of DOMA? And what is your philosophy of extending equal rights to all Americans?"
"No, is my first answer," Bielat responded. "You need some sort of framework, some sort of legal construct to where you have a state that recognizes gay marriage or a state that doesn't. There has to be some way of having a legal exchange. There may be a better way, but at the present you can't ignore that."
"Any time you have some property rights or investment or money that belongs to individuals, the government needs to stay out of it period end of story. I really don't care who the people are, or why they have the agreement or relationship. They have a set of legal rights through their own money and property," he said. "I think that is sufficient for any transaction or arrangement."
But Kennedy, recently endorsed by the Boston Globe and early in October by The Rainbow Times, said he not only favors repeal of DOMA, but also a whole lot more.
"This country is losing a strong advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians in Congressman Barney Frank," Kennedy said. "This comes back to me to be a fundamental issue of fairness. I don't think the government should tell you who you can and cannot love, who you can or cannot marry. I would support the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act."
"I am a big supporter of ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] to make sure everyone has the freedom not to be discriminated against in their place of work," Kennedy added.
"I am a big supporter of LGBT rights across the board whether it is in the form of bullying [protections] at school, high school and college, or to making sure that people who come out later in the course of their lives, given the incredible advances we have made, feel comfortable going into retirement homes that they don't have to re-closet themselves," he explained.
"So I come back to a basic issue of fairness and one that I feel very strongly about," Kennedy said.
During a recent telephone interview, Kennedy said that his strong support for LGBT rights stems partly from "having gay friends and family members."
Kennedy, who marched in Boston Pride parade earlier this summer with a large and spirited contingent that was enthusiastically applauded, said he was impressed by the applause and cheers from onlookers for Barney Frank and his husband James Ready, both of whom trekked the entire parade route side-by-side with Kennedy.
"No one will be able to replace him," said Kennedy, referring to Frank's "commitment to expanding rights and championing equality."
"Perhaps no one has done more in Washington and here at home to advance these issues," Kennedy said.
Frank in fact has been a vocal and visible supporter of his candidacy.
This is the first race for elective office for Kennedy, 32, a former Middlesex assistant district attorney. But his surname is readily recognizable across the 4th district, which stretches from Brookline and Newton to Wrentham to Plainville to Attleboro and all the way south to Fall River.
He is the grandson of the late U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and grandnephew of the late Massachusetts U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy and the late President John F. Kennedy. Joe's father is former US Representative Joseph Kennedy II.
Already, the younger Kennedy has demonstrated formidable fundraising skills. He brought in $1.1 million in campaign contributions for this past quarter, which ended on Sept. 30. That figures takes his overall intake north of $3.8 million -- more than twice the total of any of the incumbent Massachusetts Democrats seeking re-election this year, according to the Associated Press.
In addition to fundraising prowess, there is little doubt among LGBT backers of Kennedy that he would be an ardent advocate for gay rights on Capitol Hill. One supporter in the district offered her endorsement. "Joe Kennedy's support for full equality is hard-wired into his DNA -- and it shows," said Elyse Cherry of Brookline. "Our GLBT community can rely on his dependable and authentic support for the issues that are important to our lives and the lives of our families."