An attempt by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis to mend troubled relations with the gay community was met Saturday with occasional hisses and boos at a public meeting that turned into a critique of the candidate's gay rights positions.
Dukakis stuck tenaciously to his views during the tense half-hour session, finally defending the Massachusetts policy that gives homosexual couples less chance to become foster parents than heterosexuals by declaring: "There is no civil right to be a foster parent."
Many in the crowd at Los Angeles' Four Seasons Hotel then hissed with displeasure, and some responded with applause when a heckler called the presidential candidate a "bigot" and "anti-gay."
The audience also appeared dismayed by Dukakis' declaration that he would not issue an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual preference if he were elected President. Dukakis contended that such discrimination already is barred by the Constitution.
A 'Lively' Exchange
Asked later Saturday at a news conference in Pasadena whether he was satisfied with the exchange, Dukakis said: "It was lively, and that's what democracy is all about."
The meeting, before a coalition of gay rights advocates who make up the Western States Political Action Committees, was Dukakis' most extensive session of the campaign with gay activists, who have been critical of the candidate's positions on issues of concern to the gay community. The campaign's political director, Alice Travis, said it served "as a first step of coming together and learning more about each other, and understanding each other better."
The Dukakis campaign claims to have attracted as much electoral backing from gays and lesbians as any other Democratic candidate, but is clearly worried about the enthusiasm with which the gay community has responded to the candidacy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who sides with gay activists on the foster-care issue and the question of an anti-discrimination order.
Gays' Political Power
That concern remains important even as Dukakis' strategists turn their focus to the general election campaign with the hope that Jackson's gay supporters will make a pragmatic shift to Dukakis--particularly in electorally crucial states such as California, where gays and lesbians wield considerable political power.
Gay rights advocate Jean O'Leary adopted that argument Saturday in announcing her endorsement of Dukakis, saying: "Let's stop comparing Michael Dukakis with Jesse Jackson and start comparing him with George Bush.
"We can go one of two ways this year," O'Leary said. "We can stand around and hold out for a litmus-test proof of a supportive candidate's loyalty to our community while Bush continues to muster his forces here in California, or we can deal with the political realities and elect ourselves a candidate for President who is prepared to do well by the gay community."
Hisses and Head-Shaking
Dukakis met privately before the confrontational meeting with O'Leary and about 70 other gay and lesbian leaders who had announced their support for him. But even some of them joined in the hisses and head-shaking as Dukakis was questioned.
Some in the audience grew increasingly exasperated as he adhered firmly to his standard response despite questioners' insistence that he elaborate as to why he believed heterosexuals make better foster parents than homosexuals. "I think, all things being equal, that it is best for a youngster to grow up in a household with a mother, a father and other children," Dukakis said.
"I've made that judgment based on my view of what is the most appropriate placement," Dukakis said. "I respect your right to disagree with me, and I hope you will respect my position."
Sticks to Position
In arguing that an executive order banning discrimination on grounds of sexual preference would be redundant, Dukakis stuck to the position he has held in Massachusetts, where he has also resisted pressure to issue such an order.
An issues adviser to Dukakis, James Steinberg, acknowledged that some scholars do not agree that the Constitution already offers such protection. But, he said: "When you're the President of the United States it makes a lot of difference."
Despite the critical reception given to him here, Dukakis seemed unworried by the prospect that his likely rival, Vice President Bush, might usurp support from gay and lesbian voters.
Told by a questioner that 35% to 40% of gay and lesbian voters were Republican, Dukakis shot back: "The next time I see George Bush I'm going to tell him that."