The Original Gang of 14: Honoring the Senators Who Voted “Nay” on DOMA, Part 1

“Let’s face it: anybody who does not believe that gay marriage is going to be the law of the land just hasn’t been observing what’s going on.” This quote comes not from a Democrat or a moderate Republican. It comes from Orrin Hatch, who co-sponsored the Federal Marriage Amendment ten years ago, and is a leader among conservative Republicans in the Senate. I am reminded of the scene in the Ten Commandments where Ramesses II is returning to his palace after his entire army has taken a fatal bath in the Red Sea thanks to the miracle that Moses has performed on behalf of Yahweh. As Queen Nefretiri tauntingly asks to see Moses’ blood, Ramesses resignedly says of the prophet, “His god is God.” In other words, Ramesses has done everything he possibly can to stop the Jews from being freed and has to acknowledge that none of it has worked, and that there is nothing left he can do. Like the bald-headed Pharaoh doing double duty as the King of Siam/Thailand, Hatch has done everything he can to stop gay marriage and has come to the realization that he cannot prevent gay couples from eventually being treated equally any more than he can prevent the Sun from rising in the morning. Meanwhile, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a longtime opponent of gay marriage and a man widely talked about as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016, has stated with regard to challenges of his state’s ban on gay marriage, “Any federal judge has got to look at that law not only with respect to the state’s constitution but what it means in terms of the U.S. Constitution, as well . . . again, I’m not going to pretend to tell a federal judge in that regard what he or she should do about it.” Yet not long ago, politicians from both parties were falling over themselves to strongly oppose gay marriage. In 1996, eighty-five U.S. Senators voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act. Many of these Senators–Patrick Leahy, Chris Dodd, Harry Reid, Joe Biden, Olympia Snowe, Patty Murray, Alan Simpson, Nancy Kassebaum, Bill Bradley–have changed positions. I commend them. But it was a lot harder for the 14 Senators who voted “nay” on DOMA in 1996. They have not been properly honored, probably because of the embarrassment that it would bring to all the Senators who voted “yea.” However, I would like to do a three-part blog series honoring the courageous 14 as well as listing some bits of trivia about the 1996 vote. This blog post covers the first seven, listed alphabetically:

1. Daniel Akaka: Akaka represented Hawaii and bears the unusual distinctions of being his state’s junior Senator until he was 88 and only serving as senior Senator for 17 days. In 2006, Time Magazine acknowledged his reputation among Senate colleagues for being a kind-hearted man but listed him as one of the country’s five worst Senators for “being a master of the minor resolution and the bill that dies in committee.” The article also described him as living in the shadow of Hawaii’s senior Senator Daniel Inouye, forgetting that most Senators who served between 1963 and 2012 lived in Inouye’s immense shadow. I think Time Magazine’s characterization was grossly unfair. In 1996, Akaka was one of only 14 Senators who chose not to further enshrine anti-gay discrimination in federal law. If that makes someone one of the worst Senators, I’d love to see more of them.

2. Barbara Boxer: Elected to succeed Senator Alan Cranston of California in 1992, Boxer seems to have been aware from the beginning that she had big shoes to fill, as Cranston had been an early supporter of gay rights. In 1993, as Bill Clinton began throwing gay soldiers under the bus by colluding with Republicans, conservative Democrats, and Pentagon officials to craft “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Boxer sponsored legislation called “the Boxer Amendment” that would have allowed the president to issue an executive order repealing the military’s anti-gay ban completely. When the amendment failed, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was included as part of the NDAA, Boxer was one of just four Senate Democrats to vote against the Act. In 1996, Boxer further demonstrated her commitment to gay rights by voting against DOMA. Like certain other Senators who voted “nay,” Boxer initially stopped short of favoring gay marriage, saying as late as 2004 that she supported California’s gay marriage ban. In 2006, however, Boxer endorsed marriage equality, six years before Barack Obama and Joe Biden and seven years before Hillary Clinton.

3. Carol Moseley Braun: Braun’s election to the position of junior Senator of Illinois in 1993 was a moment of great historical significance. She was the the second African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote, an event that has only happened twice since then. Furthermore, of the four popularly elected black Senators in the history of this country, she is the only woman. 1996 was a rough year for Braun. She made the bizarre decision to pay a visit to Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha–without bothering to notify the Justice Department. But in 1996, Braun also voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, showing that she herself was strongly committed to human rights, even if not everyone she palled around with was. In 2004, Braun ran for president in the Democratic Party primaries and was one of only 3 candidates, along with Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich, to favor gay marriage.

4. Russ Feingold: In the eighteen years that Feingold was Wisconsin’s junior Senator, there was a rule that generally held true with votes on legislation: when a conservative-leaning bill passed with only a few or just one Senator casting dissenting votes, Feingold would probably be in the “nay” camp. He was one of 8 Senators who voted against the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the only Senator to vote against the original Patriot Act. He also co-sponsored the aforementioned Boxer Amendment and, like Boxer, voted against the NDAA passed in 1993, due to the fact that the Act included “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Especially given that he cites Martin Luther King, Jr. as a childhood hero, it is no surprise that Feingold voted against DOMA. On April 4, 2006, Feingold formally announced support for gay marriage, and on May 18, he stormed out of a Senate Judiciary Committee Meeting after an argument with political chameleon Arlen Specter. In my view, Feingold’s decision not to run for president was a national tragedy.

5. Dianne Feinstein: One of the most surprising “nay” votes on DOMA, Feinstein had actually vetoed legislation to enact domestic partner benefits for gays 14 years earlier while serving as Mayor of San Francisco. When Feinstein rose as a California Senator to denounce DOMA, she did not assert that the bill was wrong because gays deserved equal rights. Rather, she argued that it was a violation of states’ rights and unnecessary, since states already had the right not to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. 12 years later, Feinstein would come out in support of gay marriage during the controversy over Prop 8 in 2008, and in 2011, she helped introduce legislation to repeal DOMA.

6. Daniel Inouye: A one-armed World War II veteran and a forty-nine year veteran of the Senate and the president pro tempore at the time of his death on December 17, 2012, Inouye used his keynote speaking slot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention partly to champion racial equality. 13 years later, in 1981, he took up the torch for gay rights and never put it down until his death at age 88. Indeed, it would have been shocking if Inouye had voted for DOMA. 16 years later and 7 months before his death, Inouye stated, “I am very pleased that the President affirmed his support for marriage equality. I think everyone who wishes to enter into marriage and start a life together should be allowed to do so, regardless of sexual orientation. How can we say call ourselves the land of the free, if we don’t permit people who love one another to get married? I look forward to working with the President to ensure his position on marriage equality becomes law in this country.” In 2013, when Hawaii legalized gay marriage, I immediately thought of how happy Daniel Inouye must have been looking down from Heaven wearing a hula necklace.

7. Ted Kennedy: Ted Kennedy had become distinguished for his stances in support of African Americans’ rights early on in his Senate career, and like Inouye, he began publicly favoring gay rights in the 1980s. Kennedy was a vocal critic of DOMA from the beginning, labeling the bill, “a mean-spirited form of Republican legislative gay-bashing,” and stating, “whether senators are for or against same-sex marriage, there are ample reasons to vote against this bill because it represents an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power.” Nine years later, in 2005, it would become apparent where Ted Kennedy himself stood on the issue when he announced that he favored marriage equality at a time when virtually no sitting Senators had come out in support. The long-time Senator from Massachusetts was a deeply flawed man, as the Chappaquiddick Incident helps underscore. But it is hard to argue with the assessment that when Ted Kennedy died in 2009, the Gay Rights Movement lost a great ally.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I discuss the other seven Senators who voted against DOMA!


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