The Truman Library auditorium is small, and most of the people there that day were members of Kerry's entourage, the media, and big-name Jackson County and Missouri Democrats. After his speech, when Kerry stepped off the stage, one of the first people to greet him was Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon.
In what was otherwise a line for quick handshakes, Kerry stood with Nixon for a long time, listening intently to whatever Nixon was telling him.
For all we know, Nixon was warning Kerry to stick with the original sauce rather than the Rich & Spicy at Arthur Bryant's, where the candidate stopped later for lunch. But for anyone who's following Missouri politics during this presidential election year, it was easy to imagine Nixon saying something else:
We've taken care of the queers for you, Senator.
Just the day before, the Missouri Supreme Court had ruled in Nixon's favor on when Missourians could have the pleasure of amending their state constitution to ban gay marriages. Republicans wanted the election in November, when a big evangelical turnout against gay marriage would lift the end times-baiting George W. Bush. Democrats wanted the election in August, partly because they didn't want the anti-gay-marriage vote to swing the state away from Kerry but also -- though nobody's admitting this out loud -- so they wouldn't have to say anything in support of gay people's civil rights between August 3 and November 2.
We've known all along that Democrats were limp on gay marriage. We expected them to roll over and let Republican legislators put the constitutional amendment on the ballot ("Altar Ego," February 12). Privately, party insiders tell us it's a foregone conclusion that a majority of Missourians will vote to codify discrimination against a targeted group of citizens. Given that reality, no one expects the party's candidates to commit political suicide by, God forbid, sounding even remotely as if they support gay marriage.
But as a rule, Democrats count on the gay vote. They seek out the endorsements of gay Democratic clubs, they ask gay people to host fund-raisers. They give speeches at the city's annual gay-pride festival. They hire gay people to work on their staffs. So it's pathetic to watch the party that claims to be so strong on civil rights -- and gay marriage is solely an issue of civil rights -- abandon one of its core constituencies to the snarling Republican wolves.
In reality, Democrats have less and less to lose by making a stand on this issue. Americans embrace openly gay people on top-rated TV shows. Fortune 500 companies offer domestic-partner benefits to their gay employees. In Kansas City, business and government leaders invite urban guru Richard Florida, an author and hot lecture-circuit professor, to speak at their luncheons -- and foremost in Florida's message is that cities should actively court and nurture a "creative class" of residents, including gay people.
Besides, Jay Nixon is a big, strapping fellow. No one would doubt his masculinity if he'd just tell it like it is:
If the Republicans' stand on the real issues is so morally bankrupt that the only way they can get their candidates elected is by beating up on gay people, then they're pathetic little pussies.
Instead, Nixon says things like this: "If people are in favor of banning gay marriages, we ought to get to the task of doing it. People are walking down the front steps of churches and city halls in Massachusetts because Massachusetts did not have a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages." That's what he told The Kansas City Star on May 21, when the Democrats were desperate to get their issue on the ballot in August.
Curious whether Nixon's Supreme Court victory had given him any more guts, we called his office to request the attorney general's professional opinion on gay marriage.
"It's to defend the law that's currently on the books -- that marriage is between a man and a woman," said his spokesman, Scott Holste.
And as the campaign summer grows hotter, that's how big-name Democrats appear to be dealing with the issue. They're against the constitutional amendment not because gay people deserve the right to marry the ones they love, just like straight people, but because there's already a law that makes it illegal.
Not all Democrats are such wusses, though. When state reps were voting on whether to put the amendment forward, 26 of the House's 73 Democrats just said no. Mike Sager of Lee's Summit was among them.
"I wish there were more people who would step forward and speak out on this issue," Sager tells the Pitch. "There's a lot of people who share our core values who think this amendment is very, very wrong, but they can't find a way to get on top of it politically. I don't think in the history of Missouri there's ever been something this important. We need to live in a society where we take discrimination out of the constitution rather than put it in."
Sager says it's not just fear of political suicide that makes Democrats squishy on this issue. "It's just like when we do the pro-life versus pro-choice votes. The pro-life people come down and terrorize the Capitol for a few days. Pro-choice people don't threaten to kill anybody, but pro-life people threaten to blow people up." Same thing goes on gay issues, Sager says. "Gay people don't shoot people, hang them from trees, burn them alive. But the people who hate gay people do all those things."
Apparently, that sort of atmosphere can make even a macho man like Jay Nixon quiver in his boots. Who knows what Nixon really believes. Maybe he's opposed to gay marriage for personal reasons; if that's the case, he should just say so. As it is, because of his role in arguing for an August vote, he's the party's most visible opinion leader on the topic.
Too bad it's not Sager.
"I was the state rep who stood up on the floor of the House and talked about how my daughter didn't want to ride the school bus anymore because someone called her a lesbian, and I told her she shouldn't let ignorant bigots offend her," Sager tells us, recapping the legislature's debates. Out in the hallway afterward, he says, "a couple of Republican reps called me a fag lover."
Sager figures he's the only state rep from a district that's less than 65 percent Democratic who voted against the amendment.
"I'm the number-one Republican target in 2004," he says. "They've announced it in the hallways and in press releases. But I voted no because it was the right thing to do. I will not help promulgate hatred and bigotry. These people are sitting at home thinking, If we can just get a few more bigots to go to the polls, we can keep the majority."
It's guys like Sager who make the Democratic Party inspiring. It's guys like Nixon who make it seem like there's no use voting.