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The Human Rights Campaign Is Proving Bernie Right

By endorsing a Republican senator, the LGBT advocacy group has stirred deep resentment even among its supporters.

David Silverman/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, decided to endorse Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois in his reelection bid over his opponent, Representative Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat.

On the surface, the move seems reasonable, and perhaps not even particularly controversial. Kirk has a solid if unspectacular voting record on LGBT issues—he scored a 78 percent positive rating on the organization’s “scorecard” for the 113th Congress from 2013 to 2015. As a non-profit organization, it is understandable that HRC would be interested in trying to remain above politics, and it has endorsed other Republican candidates who have supported LGBT causes in the past. 

Surely, the logic goes, it would be in the best interests of the LGBT community to win over Republicans and ensure that LGBT equality is no longer a partisan issue. What could be wrong with making friends on both sides of the aisle?

Turns out, quite a bit actually. The decision has sparked a great deal of anger on the left, particularly in the LGBT community. The criticism goes far beyond condemning a single endorsement, and many of the organization’s controversial decisions of the past few years have come under new scrutiny, revealing a deep frustration even among those who defend the bipartisan approach.

First off, there is the fact that Kirk’s opponent, Representative Duckworth, has a perfect 100 percent rating on that same scorecard. And Kirk’s record, while acceptable in the recent Congress, was abysmal in the 111th Congress from 2009 to 2011 (39 percent). It’s terribly difficult to argue that Kirk is the better choice of the two, given these statistics.

And yet even if one were to argue that Kirk’s record is acceptable, having his party retain control of the Senate decidedly is not. 

With the Republican presidential field in Trumpian disarray, control of the Senate is very much in play in 2016. In fact, Kirk is one of the most (if not the most) vulnerable senators up for reelection. One would like to assume that the powers that be at HRC are aware of how much more favorable a Democratic Senate would be on LGBT issues. Without a Democratic Senate, bills like the Employee Non-Discrimination Act will never come up for a vote. Democrats controlling the Senate could go a long away in impeding the progress of the new wave of “Religious Liberty” bills popping up across the country. And then there’s the Supreme Court. Given the recent landmark ruling on marriage equality, it’s no mystery just how much is at stake with the vacancy caused by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. A Democratic Senate may be the only way that a nominee favorable to LGBT rights will ever see a confirmation vote. Republicans are hell-bent on preventing any vote now, and may continue to do so even after the election. That any LGBT rights organization could be blind to these facts, and take steps against the interests of the community it is meant to serve, is deeply troubling.

This past January, when HRC endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, Bernie Sanders called the move “consistent with establishment organizations backing an establishment candidate,” adding that the endorsement “couldn’t possibly be based on facts or the record.” The organization took offense to the remark, claiming that it has fought against the establishment for decades in the struggle to achieve LGBT equality.

Yet the reason that the criticism likely stung is that this was hardly the first time HRC has been accused of being too beholden to the establishment. For several years, many LGBT activists have accused HRC of being uniquely focused on same-sex marriage—an issue of great significance to a predominantly white, affluent population—at the expense of other issues of importance to the transgender community and LGBT communities of color. Youth homelessness, domestic violence, transgender visibility, even HIV advocacy—all of these issues seem to be far lower priorities within the organization. Furthermore, an internal report last year blasted the organization for having a serious diversity problem, essentially accusing it of being a haven of white males. HRC responded by acknowledging the problem and promising to address it. 

But opposing Duckworth only reinforces the group’s image problem. By all accounts, Duckworth is an exceptional candidate. She is an Iraq War veteran who was wounded in battle; the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress in Illinois; the first disabled woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, ever. If there ever was a candidate that an organization accused of having a diversity problem should not be opposing, it’s Tammy Duckworth. Choosing the white male candidate in this race over the Asian-American female candidate—someone who happens to have a better voting record anyway—is probably the worst way of convincing your detractors that you are taking a core problem seriously. 

Knowing all these things, the decision to endorse Kirk seems not just misguided, but foolish.

If HRC was troubled by taking a side in the race, it could have chosen to remain neutral. It could have proclaimed how wonderful it is to have two candidates with strong pro-LGBT voting records vying for the Senate seat and wished them both luck. By choosing to endorse Kirk, HRC has simply reopened old wounds while creating fresh ones.

There is no denying that HRC has done invaluable work to advance the cause of LGBT civil rights over the past few decades. The decision to endorse Kirk, however, gives the impression that its leaders continue to believe that winning over Republicans is the best way of advancing the cause. Today’s political climate, wherein Republicans like Kirk are under immense pressure to hold the line against Democratic initiatives, makes this approach seem naïve and counter-intuitive, and certainly not worth the risk of losing the faith of its supporters—something which, unfortunately, is already happening.