Posted: May 30, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When Democrat Charles M. Oberly III was running for the U.S. Senate in 1994, he was approached quietly by some gay and lesbian voters who wanted to host a fund-raiser for him, although they were somewhat hesitant.

They wanted to help Oberly, then the state's attorney general, but only if he thought their involvement wouldn't hurt his chances against William V. Roth Jr., then the four-term Republican incumbent.

It didn't -- Oberly was going to lose, no matter what, in that huge Republican year -- but there was enough concern that the event was kept low key and became known publicly only because of an anonymous tip to a political writer.

What a difference a new decade makes.

A group called the Delaware Stonewall Democratic Club, a chapter of a national organization formed by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, has been set up here, and Democratic State Chairman Richard H. Bayard couldn't get it to the table fast enough.

The Stonewall Democrats have a seat on the party's executive committee, and their activities are listed in the Democratic newsletter and on the Web site.

"It's an exciting development. How many groups are there that say, 'We're Democrats, and we want to help'? It's the single greatest wealthy, intelligent, activist resource untapped out there," Bayard said.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner also sent a message of welcome with her recent endorsement of a gay anti-discrimination bill, usually referred to by its number as House Bill 99. While advisers to Minner, a first-term Democrat, said she did it because it was the right thing to do, there was no denying that her support was expected to help her in the state's populous urban and suburban areas, as well as with the gay vote.

Nor can it go unnoticed in party circles that the Stonewall Democrats, while statewide, are based in Rehoboth Beach in Sussex County, where the Democrats are floundering. The party needs something to counter a growing Republican trend there, after two state representatives lost their seats in 2000 and U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. barely carried the county.

The Delaware chapter is starting off as if it means business. After adopting bylaws in February and beginning monthly meetings in March, it has scheduled its first big event for this summer. The draw for a fund-raiser on July 19 in Rehoboth Beach is U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a wisecracking Massachusetts Democrat who once described himself as a "left-handed, gay Jew."

The organization's name is linked to an event generally regarded as the birth of the modern gay movement for equal rights. When police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay establishment in New York City, in 1969, the patrons decided enough was enough and fought back. It led to a three-day riot that has served as a rallying point ever since.

The president of the Delaware chapter is Timothy C. Spies (pronounced Speez), a Rehoboth Beach resident originally from Dover, a graduate of Dover High School and the University of Delaware. In typical Delaware fashion, he is a law school classmate of Bayard's from Widener, although Spies never practiced law, instead working in business in Philadelphia before retiring to the beach.

"We are first and foremost Democrats. We are partisan," Spies said. "We embrace the party platform, which in turn embraces us."

The immediate focus of the Stonewall Democrats is the passage of the gay anti-discrimination legislation, which currently is short the votes it needs, but the group expects to be involved in politics beyond that, Spies said.

At the May meeting of the Stonewall Democrats, the featured speaker was state Rep. Peter C. Schwartzkopf, a newly elected Democrat whose district includes Rehoboth Beach. He said there were 54 people in attendance, a respectable number, and he came away thinking the group really did mean to have a part to play in politics.

"They're organized with a purpose," Schwartzkopf said. "They have the individual people in place who will continue to work."

Spies says the Stonewall Democrats hope to inspire openly gay or lesbian candidates to run for public office, and that says something. A community that once was nervous about even supporting a candidate, as it was with Charlie Oberly, appears on the verge of having its own become candidates themselves.