November 22, 2006
The new face of Republicans
Posted by: Chris
President Bush is backing Florida Sen. Mel Martinez to be the new head of the Republican Party, replacing Ken Mehlman, who announced after this month's disastrous midterm elections that he's leaving the GOP to return to private life. The move to Martinez, who isn't expected to run the party day to day, is seen as a play for Latino voters, who turned away from the GOP this year after gains in previous elections.
Martinez is an ironic choice for the GOP, which regularly lashes out against affirmative action and tokenism, considering he will be the Latino leader of a party that has tried to make political hay out of punitive changes to this country's immigration laws. Martinez does, however, back the president's guest worker program, along with an unrealistic plan to fence the U.S.-Mexican border.
Some gay activists and bloggers cheered the departure of Mehlman, a Karl Rove protege, because they believe he is a closeted gay man who nonetheless implemented Rove's strategy of using gay marriage as a wedge issue in President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. Don't expect more compassionate conservatism from Martinez, however. He's well versed in the use of mercernary closet cases.
In fact Martinez, who received a perfect "0" on the current Human Rights Campaign congressional scorecard and strongly backs a federal marriage amendment — had two closeted gay men on staff for his infamously anti-gay Senate campaign two years ago: Kirk Fordham (pictured), Martinez's finance director, made headlines this fall as the former staff chief for Mark Foley who tried to bribe ABC into not reporting the page scandal; and John Dowless, the former head of the Florida Christian Coalition who once suggested Gay Days at Disney put children at the theme park at risk of sexual predators. Dowless has a particularly long and checkered career in gay-baiting.
I've known Fordham for years and met Dowless in 2004 at an Orlando, Fla., gay bar — a conversation in which I identified myself as the editor of the Washington Blade, the nation's largest gay newspaper. Dowless nonetheless talked at length with me and a friend about his career in politics and his struggle with his sexual orientation. I chose to "out" him in a story published in July 2004 in the Express Gay News, a gay paper in Fort Lauderdale I oversaw at the time.
As noted, the 2004 Martinez campaign, with Fordham and Dowless on board, was infamously anti-gay, including ads erroneously identifying his GOP primary opponent as "the new darling of homosexual extremists" because he backed hate crimes legislation. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush even publically called on Martinez to back off after his campaign aired a radio ad adio that compared life in a country with same-sex marriage to life under Fidel Castro, "a totalitarian dictator who had no respect for the traditional values of family and faith." Martinez is originally from Cuba.
I remember Fordham trying to convince me back in '04 that Martinez was "a good guy" and only using the gay issue because he had to. I'm sure Mehlman said the same thing about Rove and Bush. In fact, Martinez's worst gay-baiting tactics in '04 were credited to none other than Rove himself. The selection of Martinez to replace Mehlman should be a reminder that outing — of Dowless in '04 or Mehlman in '06 — isn't much of a gay rights strategy.
It's also a reminder that the GOP is showing no signs of rediscovering the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan, the "kinder, gentler" conservatism of George H.W. Bush, or even the compassionate conservativism W. promised in 2000. Martinez, like Rove and Mehlman, represents the dark, harsh, heartless conservatism the country rejected in 2006.
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