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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

Gay Congressman Will Speak to Republicans on Trade Policy

Politics: Gesture shows Bush aims to move to the middle. But some don't want to go along for the ride.

August 01, 2000|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — The Republican appetite for moderation on hot-button social issues will get tested tonight when GOP leaders give the convention microphone to the party's only openly gay member of Congress.

Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona is scheduled to speak for about four minutes on international trade policy, not on his sexual orientation. Nonetheless, to some Republicans here, particularly social conservatives who have fought successfully to preserve anti-abortion and anti-gay planks in the party platform, the speech will be an irritating symbolic moment that they worry diminishes their vision of traditional family values.

While Kolbe's appearance is further evidence of George W. Bush's decision to put a more tolerant public face on his party, the skeptical reaction among some Republicans underlines the challenge Bush faces in holding his party together on wedge-driving social issues even as he seeks to broaden its base.

Cathie Adams, a convention delegate from Dallas who leads the Texas affiliate of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, said that during Kolbe's speech she plans to sit stoically and bow her head in prayer for him and others who she believes lead an "unhealthy lifestyle."

Adams explained: "I do have a concern if we as a party are going to be hypocritical, if we're going to lie to the American people about what we stand for."

Kolbe, though, said Monday he has heard "nothing but congratulations" on being tapped to speak. The eight-term, 58-year-old representative from Tucson is known far more on Capitol Hill for his work on government spending and trade issues than for his sexual orientation.

Last spring he was a key lieutenant in the battle to move the controversial bill to normalize trade relations with China through a sharply divided House. Three weeks ago, Kolbe said, the Bush campaign asked him to speak on trade issues to the national convention.

The decision to recruit Kolbe followed a meeting Bush held in April with a dozen gay activists who urged him to heed their concerns as he shaped his campaign. Gay Republicans hailed the meeting in Austin as a milestone, just as they believe Kolbe's appearance will set a precedent. Kolbe is not the first openly gay Republican to address a convention, but he is thought to be the highest-ranking such party member to do so.

While gay Republicans praise the Bush campaign for taking steps to reach out to them, other gay activists who are more liberal deplore Bush's record on gay issues.

Sexual orientation already has come up as an issue for Republicans as they gathered in Philadelphia for their convention. On Sunday, Lynne Cheney, wife of Bush's vice presidential pick, Dick Cheney, grew indignant at a question from a television interviewer who referred to reports that one of the two Cheney daughters is openly gay.

On Monday, the Republicans overwhelmingly approved a party platform that backs the "traditional definition of 'marriage' as the legal union of one man and one woman" and rejects giving "sexual preference . . . special legal protection or standing in law."

In June, a Times Poll found that only a quarter of self-described Republicans nationwide approved of gay rights and more than half disapproved. The poll found that Republicans opposed gay marriage by an even wider margin--more than 3 to 1.

As Kolbe speaks tonight, social conservatives--wearing vests labeling themselves "the life of the party" to advertise their strong opposition to abortion rights--are expected to be in the convention hall in force.

But also there will be a small band of openly gay Republicans, including a half-dozen delegates and alternates from California. Four years ago, activists say, the state delegation included only two gays.

One alternate, Jeff Bissiri of North Hollywood, attended a luncheon Monday in Philadelphia meant to promote the positions of gays within the party. "We have an opening with George Bush to have a voice in his campaign and, hopefully, in his administration," Bissiri said.

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