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Gillibrand's repeal plan: Will the good bomb the path to perfection?

by Jeremy Hooper

Okay, so here's the sequence:

  • Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) announced her plan to introduce an amendment to the budget that would bar funds from being used for the enforcement of Don't Ask Don't Tell
  • Many LGBT people and allies applauded. Loudly:

  • However, not everyone in the activist community is all that into the plan. Some informed voices shared their trepidation with The Advocate:
“It's helpful to talk about cutting funding for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ discharges, but we must be strategic about when such a move would be made and now is premature,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, expressed similar reservations about disrupting the process that’s now taking place in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We want to make sure a vote on that would not foreclose pursuing a vote for full legislative repeal this year,” Nicholson said. “Moderate senators may not want to take a vote on the policy twice in 2010.”

Advocates Wary of Gillibrand DADT Plan [Advocate]
  • This Advocate story then prompted blogger John Aravosis to weigh in with quite a list of personal concerns. It'd be impossible to sum all of them up here, but here's a snip:
Joe [Sudbay] and I have both been concerned for a while about Senator Gillibrand taking the lead on DADT in the Senate. She's the second most junior Democrat in the Senate, and, unlike other lead DADT repeal proponents, she's not even on the Armed Services committee. In the Senate, whether we like it or not, that matters. And, while she's been quite the outspoken advocate on our issues once she got to the Senate (Gillibrand wasn't a cosponsor of DADT repeal when she served in the House), and that's great, it takes more than good talk (or a burning desire to win re-election) to lead a successful legislative charge.
FULL THOUGHTS: 'Lift the ban' groups criticize latest Gillibrand move on DADT [Americablog Gay]

Okay, so where does this writer stand in all this? Well, first and foremost: I'm as wary towards the notion of criticizing our senatorial support as some are towards the Gillibrand strategy itself. Sen. Gillibrand has proven herself to be a workhorse on this issue, with a sense of passion and compassion that is impossible to fake. It is what has drawn so much LGBT support her way in such a relatively short time in office. And in a congress where the voices of contempt tend to be ten times louder and ten billion times more aggressive than the voices of support, I'd be reluctant to knock one of our best 'brands.

But that being said: Criticism is 100% fair. Sarvis and Nicholoson are prominent players on this issue, and their strategic concerns must be heard. John Aravosis (a G-A-Y friend, in full disclosure) has earned a prominent voice in this community, and his thoughts regarding the timing, the "ask," the soft support, etc., should also be fairly processed. These are three rainmakers who are paying attention, and anyone who fails to acknowledge that fact could come up all wet.

But here the bottom line for me: I'm 100% confident that Sen. Gillibrand is paying attention. Deeply and sincerely. Again, this is a workhorse senator who I know for a fact is wrapping her mind around this issue on a daily basis. So it seems a little reductive to imply that her work is limited to talks, and unfair to suggest that either her entrance into the repeal conversation or her placement in the senatorial pecking order threaten her ability to close deals (or unfair military policies, as it were). She has got to know the stakes here, not only in terms of DADT, but also in terms of support for her own re-election bid. She's putting herself on the line in a very prominent way, which means that she and her team are monitoring opinions, whip counts, and alternate plans far more closely than any of us are. And if that monitoring shows the gamble is greater than the good? Well, then the strategy will get redressed (which more than validates the Aravosis/Sarvis/Nicholson criticism), yet with the earned knowledge putting both us and the senator in a better place than we were before (which is what I think some might be diminishing).

At this point, I really can't believe that Sen. Gillibrand would be pushing this freeze merely because "she's looking for things to do that would be constructive" (as Sarvis suggested to The Advocate). I think she's pushing it because she, in her informed opinion, believes that it will move this ball forward. With me, the senator (my senator) has earned a heightened degree of trust. If the eggs I'm putting in her basket eventually end up on my face, then so be it.


**UPDATE: It's also interesting to note that Gillibrand's pushes are why this ball is in the state of motion that it's in. Sarvis in July of '09:

“I thought [a fast-track amendment that would've ordered the Defense secretary to stop investigating gay service members] was a long shot from the very beginning,” says Aubrey Sarvis, executive director the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization fighting for the end of DADT.

“Clearly one of the positive things that came out of the Gillibrand amendment was that it served as a catalyst for hearings,” he added.

Finally, Action on Gay Soldiers [Daily Beast]

The path is imperfect, because in a perfect world we'd never have to deal with biased nonsense like this. But Sen. Gillibrand is getting results. I, for one, would hate to hear that she's stopped trying.

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Your thoughts

I adore both you and John, and I think you're both right. I see this less as a disagreement, but more as the two of you coming at the issue from slightly different directions, and I think it's a good example of where activism and the wonky details come together in a sort of push-pull tension that's necessary. I've found myself simultaneously thrilled to see her doing what she's doing, but with some of John's same concerns that she's the loudest voice right now in the Senate. I'll be reassured if she's able to (and this might be happening behind the scenes) get a prominent Armed Services committee member or two to stand with her. She seems to be really savvy, so I see where you're coming from on that side, and she seems to have the natural moxie to get it done. But the Senate is a weird, useless fraternal cult, and she's not entrenched in the club yet, so to speak. That can work for good or for ill.

So we'll see.

Posted by: Evan Hurst | Feb 11, 2010 2:18:25 AM

I can't help, as I read the "trepidation" so many of our gay lobbyists exhibit in this, that they are more than a little upset that this is progressing outside their influence.
After all, here we have a very junior Senator, not on the Armed Service Committee, pushing forward a VERY PASSABLE legislative option that, while not perfect, would move the ball towards the end zone VERY noticeably, and these people are not in on it. It's not their personal preference of ways forward. It's not the movement they've been working towards for years. And, as we've seen before, many of our gay organizations get more than a bit testy when someone shows some success outside of their influence.
I like Americablog and John as well, but running to a gay outlet and complaining about this was counter-productive. Why not start working with Gillibrand and her staff?
Nope. Much more effective to express doubt on this idea and try to kill it from outside the Senate.

Posted by: Eric | Feb 11, 2010 8:43:45 AM

@Evan: Oh yea, I don't think there really is much "disagreement" to be had here, since there are so many unknowns. We all use the knowledge that we have, and we put our opinions out there. And then of course some of it comes down to trust, based on track record and whatever conversations we've been able to have with a certain lawmaker's team, as well as whatever life perspectives we bring to the table as individuals.

Anyone who follows both A'blog and G-A-Y knows that we sometimes differ in terms of strategy and messaging. But we have nothing but mutual respect. The important thing is that we all -- Aravosis, Sarvis, Gillibrand, myself, you, etc. -- use everyone's punditry to see things in the most well-rounded way possible. Some ideas take hold, some don't. But it's great that we have so many diff. forums to put them out there.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Feb 11, 2010 9:14:07 AM

@Eric: I think many people are just sick of being burned. It's understandable -- we've been burned so many times before.

I think the difference for me is that I have had conversations with Team Gillibrand, and have been closely following her over the past few months. I see real promise in the senator. Like *true* promise and *true* hard work. I'm finding her very refreshing.

And I also should say that I'm someone who was VERY cautious about Gillibrand in the beginning. In fact in the beginning, with her NRA record and body of then-known LGBT support, I was borderline upset about her appointment. My senator had to win me over, and she really kind of has.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Feb 11, 2010 9:18:22 AM

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