Posted: Aug. 15, 2004
By Celia Cohen
The difference between William Swain Lee and Ruth Ann Minner was the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
The two candidates for governor -- Lee, the Republican challenger, and Minner, the Democratic incumbent -- were debating a fundamental question as old as the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the Republic, the question of rights and who is entitled to how much.
This one was on gay rights.
Even beyond the gravity of the discussion, however, the entire setting was remarkable. It was the first direct engagement between Minner and Lee in the 2004 campaign season, and it came not on some grand stage, but in a living room on Saturday evening in the summer at Rehoboth Beach.
It was down-home democracy, candidates and citizenry, the way it is supposed to be. Minner and Lee were speaking before about 120 people who spilled from the spacious living room to the kitchen to the upstairs at a summer fund-raiser for the Delaware Liberty Fund, a bipartisan group formed in 1999 to mobilize gay and lesbian voters.
The summer is traditionally a time for the political doldrums, but candidates in Delaware have found a way around it. Let them come to the beach. Everybody winds up there, anyway, and where else would anyone go to talk about gay politics than Rehoboth?
For both Lee and Minner, it felt like home turf. Lee, an ex-judge who ran the Sussex County Courthouse until retiring in 1999, lives here. While Minner is from Milford, this area was part of her sprawling district when she was a state senator from 1982 to 1992, before she was elected lieutenant governor and then governor.
The Delaware Liberty Fund was only part of beach politics. The same night of its gubernatorial debate, the Sussex County Republicans were staging their annual "Passport Party," a country-club reception named for the notion that outsiders really ought to have a passport to enter the most clannish of the state's three counties.
The weekend before, there was the second annual gathering at the beach for the Delaware Stonewall Democrats, a political affiliation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender voters. Incidentally, the state does have Log Cabin Republicans, the other party's counterpart, but collectively they are not out of the closet yet.
If summer campaigning is in, so is gay politics. Minner and Lee said as much by appearing jointly to talk about it. To date they have not done much toward sharply distinguishing themselves on their policies, but this matter is one of them.
Sure, differences between them have emerged, but mostly in a gauzy, offhand fashion. Lee has made clear he harbors the Republican resentment of taxes in his heart, much more than Minner does, and he has criticized her approach to education and prison guards, to name two, but their clash on gay rights was their first opportunity to stand side by side and let the voters know where they stood on a key disagreement.
They had a rapt audience and a polite one, nothing more than groans for positions it did not like, applause for both candidates and an occasional call of "Yes!" or "Right on!" Frankly, a group like this, long used to being regarded as pariah, was thrilled at the attention.
Still, the listeners made clear how personal this politics is, how deeply it matters to them, by bestowing perhaps their most enthusiastic approval not on either candidate but on Thomas C. Hughes, a Millsboro resident who looked so vigorous at 81 that someone shouted, "What's your secret?"
Hughes had a question, one with no answer. He wondered what would happen in sickness and in death to him and his partner of 44 years if there was no form of governmental recognition for them?
As the debate began, Minner and Lee had a good idea what they were in for.
Minner's approach to gay rights was focused on its meaning to individuals. Lee's perspective was more broadly legalistic and philosophically conservative -- not conservative in the sense of Pat Buchanan's cultural wars, but conservative like Barry Goldwater's belief in minimalist government.
Minner already was the champion in this crowd, the governor who had put herself and her office on the line last year by embracing House Bill 99, legislation that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing. It was approved by the House of Representatives but died in the Senate.
Since then, Minner's comfort level with gay voters only has improved. Back then, she barely even uttered the words, "sexual orientation," but by now, she says "lesbian" with the ease of Rosie O'Donnell.
By contrast, Lee was walking a fine line. "We are part of the same community. I live here. I know you as friends," he said. "In fairness, we're going to see things differently. The very fact that you let me come in here tonight is an act of cordiality I greatly appreciate, and I hope I have a chance to pay you back for it."
Lee found himself balancing a generalized commitment to equality and non-intrusive government with his specific opposition to House Bill 99. He was doubtful that protections needed to be written into law. "We all come in contact with some prejudice," he said.
The candidates parted most starkly when they were asked whether they would support the creation of a legal form of same-sex union.
Minner was for it. She told a story of two sisters who grew up in a small town, one who was widowed and one who never married. They had different last names, and when one of them went into the hospital, the other sister was denied information because health officials thought they were lesbians with no legal right to one another's medical records.
"How ridiculous," Minner said.
Lee heard groans when he suggested the sisters could have solved their problem with a simple name change. He said he had reservations about civil unions that were limited to gay couples, preferring a legal arrangement that also would accommodate unmarried but committed straight couples as well as people living in some sort of care-giving relationship for companionship.
It could be as simple as some type of registration, Lee said.
By Delaware standards, the debate was a robust one. It said something that the candidates were willing to participate, because it could have cost both of them.
Lee risked getting whipsawed, by appearing before people he figured he could not please without being combative enough with them to satisfy the social conservatives in his party.
Minner went against the conventional wisdom that incumbents should avoid debates with their challengers, because it elevates the challenger and often hurts the incumbent more than it helps. She also disregarded the example of her old boss, Gov. Sherman W. Tribbitt, a Democrat for whom she worked as a receptionist in the early 1970s.
Tribbitt was elected to a single term in 1972 and failed in a comeback in 1984, losing a Democratic primary to William T. Quillen. When Tribbitt, a hardware store owner, was pressed to debate Quillen, a former Supreme Court justice with a Harvard education, Tribbitt refused. He said he would lose.
Minner, who grew up on a farm and dropped out of high school, was up against a graduate of Duke University and the University of Pennsylvania's law school by debating Lee. Unlike Tribbitt, she gave it a go.
Why not? It was the summer. It was the beach. Politics was taking a working vacation, as good an atmosphere as any for Minner and Lee to chance a debate.