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Lieberman Moves to Gain Support From Liberals

Democratic presidential hopeful, who has been criticized over some views, endorses gay rights, affirmative action and other goals.

April 01, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, generally considered the most conservative contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, on Monday endorsed a series of liberal social goals, including affirmative action and an expansion of civil rights protections for homosexuals.

In a speech to a liberal Jewish group, the Connecticut Democrat said he soon would introduce legislation guaranteeing health, retirement and other benefits to the domestic partners of gay federal employees.

"When gay and lesbian Americans choose a partner, they deserve the respect of the law," Lieberman told the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism at a conference on Capitol Hill.

Although Lieberman's speech did not reverse any of his positions, it did represent a shift in emphasis. He's been associated most often with centrist-to-conservative social priorities, such as criticizing Hollywood over the effect of violent and sexually explicit entertainment on young people.

Lieberman also has faced skepticism from some liberals over his frequent public references to his religious faith and his work with President Bush and Senate Republicans to draft legislation increasing government partnerships with faith-based religious charities.

Lieberman -- who became the first Jewish American on a major party's national ticket when Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore chose him as his running mate in 2000 -- seemed to be responding to that criticism in his speech.

Through American history, Lieberman argued, religious faith has been most often associated with liberal goals, from the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"Conservative politicians -- and indeed with all respect, conservative clergymen and women -- have no monopoly on moral values," Lieberman said. "Religious faith [has] ... more often than not led us forward on the long march to social progress and human rights."

Specifically, Lieberman pledged to pursue liberal social priorities on four fronts:

Gay rights: Along with his pledge to sponsor a bill that would provide benefits to the domestic partners of gay federal employees, Lieberman said he would continue to push for legislation barring discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation. That bill failed by a single vote in 1996, the last time it reached the Senate floor.

Affirmative action: Lieberman emphatically endorsed the University of Michigan admission program that gives extra points to minority applicants. In oral arguments today, the Bush administration will urge the Supreme Court to strike down the program.

In the 1990s, Lieberman expressed concerns that some efforts to increase opportunity for minorities risked becoming quota systems. But he also has voted against several Republican proposals to roll back federal affirmative action programs. Lieberman's earlier statements drew criticism from many African American leaders when Gore tapped him for the vice presidential nomination; since then, he has tended to emphasize his support, far more than his doubts, on affirmative action.

Racial profiling: Lieberman called the practice of law enforcement targeting minorities "an assault ... on America's ideals" and said he would continue to work to ban it.

Abortion: Lieberman denounced the recent Senate vote banning the procedure that critics call "partial birth" abortion and said it was "a harbinger and a warning" of future threats against the legal right to abortion. "Women must have the right to choose, and we will continue to fight for that right," he said.

Bob Borosage, co-director of the left-leaning Campaign for America's Future, said the speech could be a response to the resistance that Lieberman is facing from Democratic activists over his staunch support of the war in Iraq.

"He's got to figure out where he is going to go to get the activist base of this party engaged," Borosage said. "He has made his name as the conservative on social issues, but is moving a different way."

One Lieberman aide said the senator was "not trying to hide" his more conservative views, but believed that while most Democrats knew those positions, many were unaware of his more liberal beliefs on issues such as gay rights.

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