The others -- D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and lobbyist Michael A. Brown -- said they would not pursue marriage legislation for fear of provoking a backlash in the Republican-led Congress, which could roll back civil rights already won by gays and lesbians in the District.
Marriage, religious intolerance and the District's alarming rate of HIV infection dominated a debate hosted by the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the District's largest gay political organization. More than 200 people packed the auditorium at the Human Rights Campaign building in downtown Washington to listen to the mayoral contenders declare their abiding interest in issues that affect gay men and lesbians. Club members plan to vote and issue an endorsement June 12.
At times, the forum devolved into such overt pandering that even some audience members seemed exhausted. When they finally got a chance to address the candidates, their first questions focused on broader issues, such as maintaining the city's fiscal health and creating an evacuation plan that accommodates the large number of city residents who do not own cars. "I'm less interested in hearing each of you pander to us . . . and more interested in hearing what you're going to do to deal with the whole city," the first questioner wrote on a card read aloud by moderator Colbert King, Washington Post deputy editorial page editor.
Still, the crowd applauded loud and long for Johns's and Fenty's direct answers on gay marriage, as well as Johns's pledge to spur the black church community "to be more real, more open and more willing to discuss these kinds of issues."
The candidates were asked about a sermon last month in which Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr., pastor of Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, referred to gay men as "faggot" and "sissy," as well as the Rev. Willie F. Wilson's sermon last summer in which he claimed that lesbianism poses a grave threat to the black community.
The debate also generated some lively moments when Brown, who is trailing badly in most polls, went on the attack against Cropp, who has raised the most cash and is viewed, along with Fenty, as one of the campaign's front-runners.
Cropp often focuses in public forums on her 25 years of city service, including time on the D.C. school board. Brown struck back, saying, "Experience does not mean you've done a good job. It just means you've been there a long time."
Later, Brown pounced again, accusing Cropp of making "a very homophobic remark" when she said that closeted gay men who also have sex with women have spread AIDS among women. Cropp recited her long record of support for gay causes, including enactment of the city's domestic partnership laws and legalization of adoption for same-sex couples.
"Language is cheap!" Cropp yelled, rising from her seat. "Nobody's record is stronger than Linda Cropp's record! Sitting here, put 'em all together, they can't beat the Linda Cropp record!"