Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sestak for Senator from Pennsylvania

by Jen Coletta for PGN:

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-7th Dist.) is looking to unseat longtime U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D) in this spring’s primary election and is pledging to bring to the Senate a commitment to generate viable change for LGBT individuals in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

Sestak, 58, a Delaware County native, has served in Congress since 2007, after a decorated military career: He served in the Navy from 1974-2005 and, as a three-star admiral, holds the distinction of the highest-ranking former military officer ever to have served in Congress.

Sestak has made headlines in recent months for his strong opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers, a position he said he’s held since the bill’s 1993 passage.

“I was a Navy captain at the time and, the day after it was passed, a two-star admiral came up to me and said, ‘What do you think about this?’ and I said, ‘It’s unconstitutional. I have no doubt that the Supreme Court will throw it out in a couple months.’ But unfortunately that didn’t happen,” Sestak said.

He added the U.S. military is “behind the times” in its treatment of LGBT servicemembers.

“How can you ask someone that you went to war with to not have the same equal rights as you? It’s wrong. We’ve worked through the issue of African Americans in the military. We’ve worked through the issue of women in combat. I don’t care if you’re red, blue, green or GLBT. I want you to do your job, and I’m going to hold you accountable for that, but we need the best of all of our communities in the military for the military to be its best.”

Military action

Sestak is a cosponsor of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a bill to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that is being spearheaded by fellow Pennsylvanian Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-8th Dist.). Sestak has written letters to President Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the policy and, last year, advocated on behalf of Lt. Dan Choi to the Army’s Discharge Board, which is releasing Choi under the policy.

Also last year, Sestak led a campaign to relaunch an investigation into allegations of abuse leveled by gay former Navy sailor Joseph Rocha, who said he endured emotional and physical abuse, such as being tied to a chair, forced to simulate oral sex with another man and locked in a dog kennel filled with feces.

“I was at an event in town and a gentleman came up and asked if I’d heard about this situation, and I said no and he sent me the information, and to be honest at first I found this hard to believe. Dog feces? Handcuffs? I mean none of us were perfect when I was in the Navy, but that is just not the Navy that I knew,” Sestak said.

He contacted the Chief of Naval Operations, who agreed to launch an investigation into the situation, which in the fall resulted in the censuring of the individual who allegedly spearheaded the abuse. Sestak said he’s still awaiting further action on the lack of oversight in the case.

“I spoke to the Secretary of the Navy and said that there has to be a follow-up,” he said. “In the Navy, if a captain is sleeping at 2 a.m. and someone falls asleep steering the ship, the captain is accountable. There are people who saw this and knew what was going on, and they need to be accountable.”

Sestak said Congress also needs to be held accountable for lifting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Congress put this in there, and I think we have a constitutional responsibility to remove it. I think if you ask pretty much any Democrat if they individually think ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ should be repealed, they’ll say yes, but I’m worried there’s not a lot of courage right now,” he said.


Sestak noted that many legislators “ran to the hills” on the issue of the inclusion of the “public option” in the healthcare-reform bill, of which he is an advocate, a trend he said is all too prevalent in the political field.

“We need a sense of accountability in our leaders in Washington, D.C. People should not be taking positions because they’re more worried about maintaining their legacy or their jobs rather than being willing to risk that for a principled compromise, as opposed to compromising their principles.”

Sestak said Specter made such a move when he announced in the fall that he no longer supported the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on same-sex marriage, which he originally voted for in 1996. Specter told PGN his position switch reflected the nation’s, as well as his own, progression on LGBT-rights issues, but Sestak said he doubted the veracity of that claim.

“I was sent a letter by one of my constituents that had been sent to him in September by Sen. Specter in which he says he supports DOMA. And then a couple weeks later he came out in opposition to it,” he said. “The biggest difficulty the Democratic Party has right now is not the Republican Party, but rather a lack of trust from our constituents. This is why I’m running. I’m very fortunate; I’ve already done everything I’ve wanted to do in life — I commanded a ship, and that was what I’d always wanted to do. I didn’t even want to initially run for Senate, and I’m not craving to be president. So maybe it’s easier for me, but I’m not running for the job, I’m running to give back.”

Sestak said that, if and when DOMA is repealed, he would support legislation to legalize civil unions or marriage for same-sex couples at the federal level; he said he favors civil unions, as he believes marriage is more of a “church issue,” but said he would “not be opposed” to extending it to same-sex couples.

“It’s an issue of national importance that shouldn’t be decided state-by-state, as it is, because then nobody wants to touch it. I don’t think it’s just a state issue. How can you be in one state and be discriminated against in another state? I do think civil rights have to have federal legislation.”

Immigration reform

In addition to the bills to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA, Sestak is a cosponsor of nearly every other pro-LGBT bill in Congress, except the Uniting American Families Act, a measure that seeks to eliminate discrimination in immigration laws for same-sex couples.

Sestak said he is a strong proponent of the idea of UAFA but believes that, to be successful, it should be part of a comprehensive immigration-reform bill. In addition, he said, if it proceeds as a stand-alone bill, the language of the current measure, introduced in February by U.S. Rep Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.), needs to ensure that same-sex and heterosexual couples are treated equally.

Sestak said he’s met numerous times with Rep. Louis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) to ensure inclusion of UAFA in the comprehensive bill Gutierrez is spearheading, and that he’s also drafting his own version of UAFA that provides further clarification that same- and opposite-sex couples will have to follow the same procedures. If UAFA is not included in the comprehensive immigration measure, Sestak plans to introduce his bill as an amendment to the comprehensive legislation if and when it reaches the Rules Committee.

Sestak — who has attended OutFest, Pride and numerous other LGBT events in Allentown, Reading and other locales, and served as a guest speaker at the 2008 Equality Forum and the keynote speaker at that year’s Human Rights Campaign Philadelphia Gala — said that throughout the rest of the campaign, and if he’s elected to the Senate, the LGBT community should feel comfortable bringing their concerns to him and relying on him to take action on those issues.

“I promise to be accountable, accessible, honest and working hard for the interests of everyone equally. The GLBT community does not have equal rights and simply we have to have that. This country stands for equal rights, and I want to fight for that principle every day.”

No comments: