WASHINGTON – Wanted: Gay Democrats.
Democratic parties in 15 states and Puerto Rico have set numerical goals for gays and lesbian delegates at the party's national convention this summer, double the number that set a standard in 2000.
The effort comes as gay marriage has emerged as a divisive political issue, particularly in Massachusetts where Democrats will gather in July to choose their presidential nominee. Barring a last-minute ruling, gay marriages will be legal in the state beginning Monday.
Both President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry (search) oppose gay marriages, although the Republican incumbent has backed a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex nuptials. Kerry supports civil unions.
Democrats are determined to ensure that gays and lesbians are part of their convention ranks. Delegates should "look like the nation as whole," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group.
According to the Democratic National Committee (search), 212 delegates, or roughly 5 percent, of the more than 4,300 at the party's 2000 convention in Los Angeles were gay or lesbian. They came from seven states with numerical goals, as well as states without.
The increase in 2004 is in part "a signal of growing acceptance of gays and lesbians nationwide," said Eric Stern, who directs the DNC's outreach efforts to those groups.
Democrats have courted aggressively gay voters and their campaign dollars — with a significant amount of success. In 2000, exit polls showed Al Gore (search) got 75 percent of the votes cast by self-identified gays and lesbians, compared to 25 percent for Bush.
National convention delegates formally choose a party's presidential nominee. Among Democrats, a DNC panel signs off on a state delegate selection plan, including diversity goals that can range from the number of blacks and Hispanics to age breakdown.
In California, the target is 22 gays and 22 lesbians among the 440-member delegation. Rhode Island is seeking one gay or lesbian among its 32 delegates.
Officials are quick to point out that the goals aren't quotas. Neither a state nor a presidential campaign is penalized if they do not reach these goals. However, state delegations are required to have equal numbers of men and women.
Party and Kerry campaign officials say they haven't had problems filling goals. In many cases, parties coordinate with local chapters of gay advocacy groups such as the National Stonewall (search) Democrats to recruit potential delegates.
Karen Hammer, chair of that organization's Colorado chapter, will be part of her state's 64-member delegation to Boston. The state party this year added the goal of three gay or lesbian delegates.
"We decided we should be getting some of those seats because of our status needing protection for equal rights ... should be on par with other groups," said Hammer, who is pledged to support Kerry.
Rachel Morse, a social worker from Oklahoma City, is another Stonewall Democrat member and Kerry delegate. Oklahoma does not have a delegate goal for gays or lesbians.
Generally, application forms to become a delegate include questions about sexual orientation that help state parties and campaign officials determine if they fit a diversity need. Answering is optional, officials say, but people like Morse add that privacy isn't an issue for many delegates who already are politically active and whose backgrounds are well known.
Rules for the Republican National Convention, to be held in August in New York City, state that participation in primaries and the delegate process "shall in no way be abridged for reasons of sex, race, religion, color, age or national origin," while encouraging the "broadest possible participation" among all groups.
But, for the most part, numerical goals for delegations to the Republican convention do not exist.
Gay and lesbian delegates attended the party's 2000 convention in Philadelphia, said Chris Barron, political director for the Log Cabin Republicans (search), a gay political group. He did not have precise numbers.
"We're happy at the number we are going to have at (this year's) convention," Barron said. "We want the delegates there to be there because of who they are, and not an arbitrary status" like sexual orientation, race or religion.