I’m not a junkie for scandal, but the press today selectively reports on issues and pulls punches in ways that would make Edward R. Murrow turn over in his grave. Political candidates and officials have gotten far too comfortable with evasive answers, "no comment" or denying interviews to anyone who may not support their platform. It’s a way of being dishonest without overtly lying to the public. Recently, I experienced this trend first hand while trying to secure an interview with both mayoral candidates regarding Proposition 8 and other LGBT concerns.
It all started with legalized gay marriage in California. Recently, countless couples, some who had been waiting decades for the right, stepped-up to the alter amidst the cheers and sneers of a watchful public. In response, Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was introduced to the public. Suddenly, the Fresno mayoral race became increasingly tinged with more ideological questions. City mayors were of concern regardless of their legislative clout. With the advent of local officials taking protest stances serving as a precedent, like Mayor Newsom’s decision to perform gay marriage ceremonies or Mayor Autry’s response of performing heterosexual marriages in City Hall, voters justifiably wondered about how their elected leader might influence the overall legal or ethical climate in their prospective communities.
So, when mayoral candidates Henry T. Perea and Ashley Swearengin were asked to take a definitive stance on this issue, each reasonably consented to answer – to an extent. Perea asserted he personally believed marriage was a heterosexual institution, but would not support the proposition because it was a "civil rights issue", making an inconclusive distinction between personal moral views and political action. It’s an age-old ‘play it both ways’ political position to offend everyone a little and no one a lot. It’s also the position taken by almost every mayor in a similarly sized metropolitan area (Autry excluded). Considering this, the stance wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was that certain members of the gay community greeted this statement with enthusiasm. It’s as if some of us were comforted that Perea seemed a little less disdainful of gay people than Swearengin. Maybe, it was just a simple case of hearing what we wanted to hear. Still, internet posts and community emails serving as battle cries to Get Swearengin! while stating that Perea "supports" gay marriage are going a bit too far.
It is still unclear whether Perea is truly progressive when it comes to LGBT issues. He’s only commented on one of them. From that single statement, one could infer that he sees this as a state matter beyond his control, but would take anti-gay positions within a local context. It could be that he believes gay people are constitutionally entitled to full equality regardless of his personal feelings that they are not. He could just be parroting the least offensive response in order to win the election. Either way, why should we have to guess?
Swearengin’s position was arguably more problematic. Swearengin had previously stated she was against Prop. 8. When she more recently stated that she supported the proposition, she cited that the new version of the proposition was less "restrictive". In actuality, the new version of Proposition 8 was slightly re-worded to ensure that heterosexual partnerships could not be jeopardized. The limitations on gay marriage went unchanged. This heightened the outrage of some members of the gay community. Not only were they suddenly aware Swearengin did not support full equality between gay and straight citizens, she had only hesitated in supporting the proposition because it might hinder straight unmarried couples.
Swearengin received votes and support from the gay community based on her other attributes as a mayoral candidate, but also due to the impression that she wouldn’t work against those same supporters. How could anyone have been so misinformed? Precisely because no one asked specific questions – many voters just assumed Swearengin’s previous anti-Proposition 8 stance meant she cared about gay people. Even now, some voters are assuming Perea is our corner even though he simply categorized gay marriage as a civil rights "issue" and never directly referred to it as a civil "right". Both candidates have gotten away with being vague. People have already cast votes based on false assumptions. What more evidence do we need that in-depth media coverage is necessary?
So, I decided to get more specific. I contacted each candidate’s office and requested that both candidates clarify their views on Prop. 8 and the LGBT community in general. Henry Perea’s office was predictably polite and promised to get back to me. They didn’t. When I initially began to research the candidates views, I was encouraged by the fact that Councilman Perea’s website emphasized "communication" to such a degree that he not only included at several paragraphs exclusively elaborating on this value, but an email and a blog link as well. The fact that he didn’t appear to answer his email and that he had never made even one entry on this blog didn’t completely quell my hopes immediately. He squelched those later by ignoring phone contact too. I was not granted or denied an interview. Perea’s office just left me waiting…indefinitely. Ashley Swearengin’s office was more personable and willing to consider the possibility of an interview. Yet, in the end, even after I submitted interview questions in advance (as per a Swearengin campaign official’s request) our interview was declined. Let me clarify that I know there are other important issues to attend to but I was requesting a fifteen minute phone interview and willing to exclude or edit any of my questions to secure that interview. Still, nothing.
This concerns me. Of course I am angry that neither candidate wanted to offer further comment on an issue so paramount to the LGBT community. What concerns me more is that this is becoming a well established trend. Each candidate arrogantly picks and chooses what and who they want to address, even though their tactics ill-serve liberal and conservative voters alike in regard to making an educated choice in November. We might have grown to expect this on a national or state level. We might even see this as reasonable – how can they respond to every concerned individual or reporter? Yet, there are roughly thirty media sources that cover local issues in Fresno (including special interest publications and websites). Even if each media source demanded an interview (unlikely), and candidates offered a standard 30 minute spot to each (twice the time I requested), you’re still talking about around 15 hours of interview time. Consider that these campaigns often continue for over a year. Interviews are not an unreasonable request or a logistical problem. The real problem is that, even on a local level, politicians no longer see themselves accountable to the press or their community. It’s not so much that they say whatever they want. The problem is that they say as little as possible, and sometimes, nothing at all.
Empty statements or generalized platforms have taken the place of authentic, specific commitments to pubic welfare. Voters are often voting "blind" on the issues that matter most to them, or basing votes on common sense impressions of a candidate. Gay people who voted for Swearengin know first-hand how well that works – she seemed like such a nice person… Sadly, just because you like a candidate, doesn’t mean they like you. On the other hand, I’m not convinced a vote for Perea wouldn’t eventually lead to feelings of betrayal sooner or later. Based on the information at hand, there’s just no way to be sure.
I know both Perea and Swearengin might argue they’ve already stated their positions on Proposition 8 and there is nothing more to say. I’d argue that a single issue is just the beginning of the conversation. They may also assert that they’d prefer to spend their time debating issues that pertain to everyone, not just a certain group. In a community as diverse as our own, this leaves many issues crucial to the welfare of some marginalized groups off the table. Whether those issues are defined by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, or anything else, they deserve attention. These are all groups with specific needs and interests no less important than the interests of people with greater income, privilege or numbers. Frequently, groups who are given the least regard in any given community are most in need of support from public officials. It is insulting and irresponsible when candidates claim the right to dismiss any of these groups by commenting on a single issue, or not commenting at all.
It is also dishonest. I don’t believe either of these candidates is naive enough to assume they’ve already addressed the gay community’s concerns. They simply recognize it for the volatile territory that it is and lack the integrity to elaborate on their views. They are strategizing for a win and damage control takes precedence over voter interests. Any tenacity voters or journalists may have to ask all the right questions, has devolved into a game of endurance. The candidates avert us indefinitely and wait for us to crumple in due time. No answer is the best answer by today’s standards and this strategy is proving more effective than most of us are willing to admit.
As of now, I am disillusioned with both candidates and campaign media coverage. As voters we have seen some inexcusably redundant news coverage of the California wildfires, house fires, shootings, car chases and other random tragedies, while there has been only limited, anecdotal coverage of local mayoral candidates. Don’t get me wrong. I care about the fact that someone saved a donkey from a forest fire – I have nothing against donkeys (this was given front page coverage in The Fresno Bee by the way), but if there’s nothing I can do about it as a citizen or voter, watching the situation unfold like a voyeur who rubber-necks an accident scene after the paramedics arrive is not my idea of responsible civic engagement.
In the end, four years is no joke in the scope of public life – many benefits can be garnered and much damage can be done. It’s time to take our local officials a little more seriously and ask serious questions until they are seriously answered. This is not an exclusively gay issue; it is an issue pertaining to democracy and quality of life for everyone in our community. If the information isn’t available, how can we make informed choices as voters? As long as politicians exclusively decide what issues are relevant and can reject questions from the media or concerned voters, how can we improve our community, especially in the face of two candidates who don’t care much for certain groups of people at all? Once they’re in office, they are even more difficult to reach. I could expound on all the pathways we could take to bring certain issues to the table. However, most of us know how to reach newspapers, television stations, political candidates and public officials. We know what to do – we need to stop being so apologetic or timid about it.
Until then, maybe they’re right. When we call, there’s really no need to answer.
**Henry Perea ended up agreeing to an interview with Gay Fresno. Read it HERE…