When eight Assembly Democrats joined a near-unanimous Republican caucus on June 5 to block Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl’s Dignity for All Students Act (AB 222), a bill to protect gay students from harassment, gay Democrats — and much of the party leadership — reacted with anger. “By voting against this bill, the eight said it’s okay to discriminate,” asserted L.A. County Democratic chairman Garry Shay.
The bill failed to pass by a single vote, leaving each defector to answer for, in effect, killing the measure single-handedly. Stonewall Democratic Club president Eric Bauman damned the deserters as “The Spineless Eight,” but the wrath of disappointed gay-rights advocates focused most intensely on first-term Assemblywoman Nell Soto of Pomona.
While gay Democrats and their allies were not surprised by nonsupport from Assembly members from the Central Valley, with conservative or centrist constituents, Soto had told Stonewall members, “We’re family,” when seeking their endorsement in her 1998 primary campaign. A 72-year-old widow and grandmother who was previously vice mayor of Pomona, Soto is also the mother of openly gay Democratic activist and environmental expert Tom Soto, who may run for Kuehl’s Assembly seat when she is termed out next year.
The octet who voted with the Republicans were among nine Democrats targeted by Campaign for California Families and Latinos por la Familia, which worked hard to defeat the bill. Both groups are tied to Capitol Resource Institute, founded and funded by former Republican state Senate leader Rob Hurtt and other Christian-right donors. The weekslong offensive included full-page advertisements in local dailies and a massive out-of-state phone bank, aimed especially at Latino voters. According to proponents of the bill, phoners asked voters if they agreed with a bill that required teaching that homosexuality was just as good as heterosexuality in all public and Catholic schools; if the voters demurred, they were given the opportunity to send a message to their legislator, and if they said yes, the caller was immediately switched to the legislator’s office.
Soto supported the bill at the committee-hearing stage, but developed second thoughts as the religious right’s campaign against it mounted. She announced her change of heart a week before the vote, incurring the wrath of erstwhile allies. “She’ll be hearing about this from now to next Election Day,” warned Bauman, “because she’s a liar. Of the eight, she’s the only one who repeatedly promised to support it during her campaign. She told us she was too old to need a second career.”
Bauman said a number of donors to her campaign will demand that their contributions be returned or redirected to gay-related groups in the Pomona area.
Among those stung by Soto’s reversal was Rodney Scott, her ’98 campaign finance manager. Last Thursday, Scott led a dozen picketers lining the driveway at a Soto fund-raising event at the Pomona Valley Mining Co. After the picket, Scott confronted Soto inside the restaurant, telling her, “I relied on you and trusted you, and I’m very disappointed you didn’t step up to the plate.” Soto responded, “I love you, but this is the decision I had to make.”
Soto reported that 77 percent of the calls to her office on the issue opposed the Kuehl bill. However, Bauman insisted that legislators’ fears are out of proportion, inflated by the rightist opposition campaign: “Most of the people who would respond to that message weren’t going to vote for a
Soto’s son Tom, who hand-delivered to his own mother a letter from the mother of murdered gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, was disappointed, but a little more understanding about his mom’s stance. “We talked about it plenty — over several days — it’s difficult, but I’m not going to run against her.”