MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, a storm threatens many of the same areas that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. We'll check in with the director of Homeland Security for New Orleans to find out how the city and its neighbors are getting ready. That's just ahead.
First, though, the Republican National Convention, which was delayed for a day by the storm, is fully underway today, so we decided to start things off by talking about one of the issues that divides this convention, the issue of civil rights for gays and lesbians.
This year's proposed Republican platform affirms the Defense of Marriage Act - that's the federal ban on same-sex marriage. But gay and lesbian Republicans and their supporters say their party's views are evolving. Here's one ad sponsored by a leading gay rights group that's airing in Tampa this week. It features San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
MAYOR JERRY SANDERS: As a Republican, I believe in conservative values, like responsibility and limited government. Our party is changing on this issue thanks to leaders like Dick and Lynne Cheney, Laura Bush, Ted Olson and Cindy McCain. Marriage strengthens families, and we need more of that in this country, not less.
MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called R. Clarke Cooper. He is the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans - that's a group that promotes LGBT rights within the Republican Party. He's also a frequent guest in our Barbershop Roundtable. Also with us, Sarah Longwell. She is on the leadership committee of the group called Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry. That's a group that's trying to rally people who identify as conservatives in support of same-sex marriage. And they're both with us from the convention at Tampa. You can hear the hubbub around them. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
R. CLARKE COOPER: Hello, Michel.
SARAH LONGWELL: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: So Clarke Cooper, you participated in the RNC's platform sessions. As we mentioned, the Defense of Marriage Act was affirmed, but I don't want to say - not just affirmed but affirmed in a rather robust fashion. The party platform also rejected a proposed amendment to support civil unions. Why do you think that is?
COOPER: Well, the platform reflects those who are on the platform committee, and remember, those are designated by people who have actually sought out to serve on that committee. And a bit lesson learned is those who are involved in Republican Party politics should be involved in the platform.
It was a good thing, though, to see that there was - you used the word robust - a debate that took place for the first time in open fora not only on the subcommittee level but in the full committee level. So proud to see that there were fellow Republicans who were actual delegates to the platform committee offer amendments to strike the DOMA language, offer an amendment, as you mentioned, to actually insert language supportive of civil unions.
So what manifested itself in those debates was just that shift that's occurring within the broader GOP, within the broader conservative community. There was debate and dialogue. We lost on those points, but fair to say that we saw it revealed and exposed in a very positive fashion.
So trajectory is, in our case, it's moving in our way, and it's not only the demographics of a younger voter, it's the demographics of some of the geographic regions as well.
MARTIN: Well, I wanted to talk to Sarah about that, but Clarke, just staying with you for one more minute, you also advised the RNC platform committee to avoid language that could be seen as anti-gay. I don't - do you think you succeeded in that? And really why? I mean, if the policy is what the policy is, why not just say it?
COOPER: Well, for starters, as fellow conservatives, we believe in building a stronger, more inclusive Republican Party. In fact, if anything, we see ourselves as force multipliers. And Haley Barbour said it best at the Republican Leadership Conference back in 2011, that purity is the enemy of victory.
So regardless if on principle you stand in favor of equality measures or if for political, pragmatic reasons you actually are supportive of gays and lesbians being part of the broader umbrella, so to speak, one has to look at how to secure majorities, how to win elections. And doing anything divisive or exclusive at the end of the day will always keep you in the political minority.
So you know, that said, being part of the process was at a minimum a recognition of the need for the party to not only maintain its constituencies but to grow, to expand its base, because if we don't, then there is an issue of relevance.
MARTIN: Sarah Longwell, you're an organizer of a new group called Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry. And this is not just for people who are gay and lesbian identified, but also for the people who support them, who are straight. How are you making the case to other people who see themselves as conservative that they should support same-sex marriage?
LONGWELL: Well, the main thing that we want to communicate is that the freedom to marry is really consistent and in line with the conservative ideology of individual liberty, personal responsibility, family and freedom. And so I think that conservatives tend to respond to that language. They understand that they do want to minimize government's role in people's lives, maximize freedom.
And when you really connect the two, you connect the freedom to marry with those principles and show them how they're in line, we think that we can make the case that there's no reason to - for people who identify as conservative to oppose the freedom to marry for all individuals.
MARTIN: We're talking with Sarah Longwell. She's with a group called Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry. Also with us, R. Clarke Cooper of the Log Cabin Republicans. They are two people advocating for LGBT rights at the Republican National Convention. They're joining us from the convention center. You hear all the activity all around them.
COOPER: But Sarah Longwell, on this point, this year's Democratic National Convention platform will endorse same-sex marriage for the first time. The Obama administration ended "don't ask, don't tell" in the military. It mandated domestic partnership rights for federal employees. And I think a logical question for many people would be: If this is a priority for you, why wouldn't you support the people who support you?
LONGWELL: Well, there's a lot of things with - that I disagree with Democrats about, and I think that there's far more things that I agree with Republicans about than Democrats. Now, of course this is an incredibly important issue, but for me it's much more important to be a part of the party, to be here, visible, and to work for change within the party.
You know, if I agree with somebody 80 percent of the time, I'm going to try to work on that other 20 percent. I'm not going to jump ship. So - and the fact is, and it's really important to note that young people today are really changing on this issue. I mean, the fact that you did have President Obama - and that was just three months ago. I mean let's remember this was only three months ago that President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage.
But, you know, we as conservatives should recognize that young people, if we want to stay relevant in the party, young people's minds are changing on this issue. The entire country is changing on this issue, and as Democrats have come around on this issue, so too will Republicans, as long as we continue to have people like Clarke and I and all the people that we're here with at convention making the case to our party.
I mean, if you look at people under the age of 44, you have 46 percent of self-identified Republicans and conservatives who favor the freedom to marry. That is a huge shift amongst young people in the party, and so...
MARTIN: It's like what Clarke was saying earlier, that the demographics are on your side. You figure you'll win eventually.
COOPER: Well, we know we're going to win, and we know this because our presence is welcome. Remember, the reason why were involved in the platform process last week was because it was by invitation of the RNC. We're credentialed, Log Cabin is credentialed by the RNC to be here.
So it's very clear, at least institutionally amongst RNC officials and staff, that not only do they want us here, they expect us to be here. It is our role. And so I feel...
MARTIN: Can I just jump in? Can I just jump in for one second, Clarke? Just because we've been talking a lot about same-sex marriage. Are there other issues that you're advancing while you're there?
COOPER: Well, of course. One of them is employment nondiscrimination protection. And so you have, you know, Governor Romney and Paul Ryan are both on record on saying that they support nondiscrimination workplace. Paul Ryan has actually taken a vote on the federal level. He - there was one time in 2007 when the House representatives actually put forward the employment nondiscrimination act known as ENDA, which would add sexual orientation to that EEO list of race, sex and creed.
So he's on record on the federal level of supporting that. Romney, when he was governor of Massachusetts, supported that. What they could do, which would be a benefit to the campaign, is to articulate that in a stronger fashion as they move forward toward Election Day.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you that, because in a recent poll by Logo TV, which is an LGBT-focused cable channel, and Harris Interactive, found that 67 percent of self-identified LGBT voters support Obama-Biden; only 23 percent support the Romney-Ryan ticket. Of course that's still better than their polling among African-Americans. But you know, setting that aside, Clarke, is there anything that the ticket in your view can do at this point to increase their standing among self-identified LGBT voters or voters who prioritize these issues?
COOPER: Well, as Sarah mentioned, there are many issues that - we're multi-dimensional as voters, regardless of orientation, and the economy is number one. And you mentioned that Harris poll. It's also reflective of the Rasmussen polls and CNN and other polling, including internal polling at the RNC that it is about the economy. It is about jobs. And regardless of your orientation, you have to put food on the table. You have to pay your rent or your mortgage. So employment nondiscrimination certainly affects everybody, regardless if they want to marry or not.
MARTIN: Sarah Longwell, I gave Clarke the first word, so I'm going to try to give you the last word. Mitt Romney's scheduled to speak on Thursday evening. Before I let you go, I wanted to ask: Do you think he will address same-sex marriage? And, if so, what do you hope he will say? And do you think he will?
LONGWELL: I hope that he doesn't. I mean, I hope that they leave gay people out of it and they don't talk about it at all, because I think, you know, it is a divisive issue. And there's no need for them to bring it up. That's not what our country's concerned about right now, and they really should be focused on the economy and on jobs. So I hope he doesn't mention it at all.
MARTIN: And one of the things I've been asking all of our guests when we've had time is the whole question of: What does it mean to have a successful country at this point in our history? Because success is so much a part - and what success means seems to be so much a part of the conversation both parties are having with their voters and supporters and would-be supporters. So, Sarah, what do you think a successful country looks like?
LONGWELL: Well, I think a successful country is one that is creating jobs, where the economy is growing, where people feel optimistic. They don't feel pessimistic. I mean, right now, people feel very pessimistic. There's a lot of enthusiasm at this convention with the idea that we might go in a different direction and we might start growing this economy again and turn the country around. I mean, we've been on a bad path for a long time, and things have got to change.
And, you know, when it comes to making it better for gay people within this party, you have got to have conservatives who are in the party who support the freedom to marry talking to other conservatives. It's very important that, you know, we are here to make this change so that, ultimately, this party can be stronger and it can take the country in the direction that it needs to go.
MARTIN: Sarah Longwell is on the leadership committee of a group called Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry. That group supports same-sex marriage. She was with us from the Tampa Convention Center, along with R. Clarke Cooper. He is the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. That's a group that supports LGBT issues within the Republican Party. You also hear him often on our Barbershop roundtable. He was also there in Tampa. You can hear all the activity around them.
Thank you both so much for joining us. Our best wishes for a successful convention.
COOPER: Thank you, Michel.
LONGWELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.