Last Thursday Democrat Mike Gravel knew he’d only have about fifteen minutes of back-and-forth with the panelists at the Human Rights Campaign presidential forum to communicate his positions on issues important to the gay community.
But he also knew he was lucky to get even that much. That’s because HRC initially invited only candidates who had raised over $100,000 that quarter, the minimum threshold for federal matching funds, which would have left the former senator from Alaska out.
So he took some of his limited time to thank a handful of activists from San Francisco’s Harvey Milk Club for raising hell and getting him into the event. (More on that in a minute.)
You wouldn’t know about any of this from reading the press coverage of the debate. Gravel, like virtually all candidates tagged as fringe-dwellers by the mainstream press, is mostly ignored. It happens in every campaign, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.
Yes, it’s impossible for debate sponsors—whether news organizations or advocacy groups—to invite all the announced presidential candidates to every event. There are at least twenty-seven Democratic contenders, including many candidates who’ve never held elected office. Anyone thinking seriously about pulling the lever for Dal LaMagna, best known from his past career as a Long Island tweezers manufacturer?
Gravel’s no Tweezerman. He was in the Senate from 1969 to 1981—almost as long, it’s worth noting, as the three frontrunners’ combined Senate service.
But he’s no Obama or Clinton, either. Hell, he’s not even a Biden.
He’s been off the national political radar for the last twenty-five years. Since reappearing, he’s become best known for using his debate time to needle the frontrunners for their hawkishness toward Iran, to call for the criminalization of the war in Iraq, and to tell voters not to “believe a word” of his opponents spending plans. His tone is sometimes akin to Howard Beale, the disgruntled “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” television anchor in Sidney Lumet’s Network.
He’s always entertaining. And he’s not saying much that you couldn’t read in your local alt-weekly. It just isn’t the highly scripted, centrist positions that we’re conditioned to expect from our candidates—stuff that has the blessing of the party and is calculated to offend as few people as possible.
But that’s kind of the point here.
Jon Emery, a vice president of the Harvey Milk Club’s board, was not entirely unsympathetic to HRC’s initial decision. “You have to draw the line somewhere to keep out the crazies,” he says. But in this case, Emery felt Gravel’s strong advocacy for gay rights made him a no-brainer for the HRC event—that’s what it was about after all. Gravel and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich are the only two major-party presidential candidates who support same-sex marriage. In June, during San Francisco’s pride parade, Gravel rode on the back of a silver Volvo convertible, waving to the crowd, flashing the thumbs up, and posing for snap shots with fans. The seventy-seven-year-old candidate made history that day as the first major party presidential candidate to appear in the thirty-five-year-old parade.
So members of the Milk Club mobilized and had HRC members call in to complain. They sent e-mails to HRC board members, and on July 13 Emery brought out the big guns, telling the HRC that unless Gravel received an invitation, the Club would picket HRC’s major San Francisco fundraising gala, which coincidentally was to be held the next night.
Before the end of the day, the Gravel campaign got a call from HRC extending a verbal invitation. A little outrage goes a long way.
On the Monday August 6, four days before the Human Rights Campaign event, MSNBC and the AFL-CIO sponsored a debate—and invited Gravel. His campaign, though, forgot to file a requisite endorsement questionnaire, and so the union excluded Gravel. Okay, these things happen. (One wonders, though, if the Obama or Clinton campaigns had forgot to dot this particular i, whether their candidates would have been left out.)