Sen. Cory Booker had two words for the hundreds of gay rights activists gathered in the nation's capital: "Stay faithful."
The New Jersey Democrat said there is a long road ahead before the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community obtains equal rights under the law, during his address to the Human Rights Campaign's equality convention at a District of Columbia hotel Friday afternoon.
The mantra stemmed from his time as an activist in Newark, N.J., when he was distraught after witnessing a young boy die after being shot. A tenant president who lost her own son to murder repeated those words to Booker. Now, he said, the words guide him as a senator.
"When I came down to Washington, and some days feel like I’m banging my head on an implacable wall when I can’t even get one Republican to sign onto a piece of legislation justifying and affirming rights and equality, I say these two words,” Booker said.
He seemed to refer to the Equality Act, which would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Lawmakers introduced the Equality Act the day after the Supreme Court decision that rendered same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Booker stressed that the activists must honor the civil rights leaders who came before them by working to end discrimination.
"We pay it forward by our conviction that here in America we cannot have a nation where, in the majority of our states, you may now be able to get married. But in those states, the next day after your wedding when you post your pictures on Instagram, Facebook, and yes, Snapchat, that the next day you could be homeless because you’re kicked out of your housing, jobless because you’ve been denied your job based on who you are,” Booker said.
Booker's remarks to the activists came one day after more than 100 Human Rights Campaign volunteers visited more than 150 congressional offices to advocate for the Equality Act, other anti-discrimination legislation, funding for HIV and AIDS programs and research, and consideration of President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee.
So far the bill's prospects are bleak in the GOP-controlled Congress. Only one Republican House member and one Republican senator have agreed to co-sponsor the Equality Act: Rep. Robert J. Dold and Sen. Mark S. Kirk, both of Illinois. Both lawmakers, as one GOP strategist pointed out, are in danger of losing their seats in 2016.
The Rothenberg-Gonzalez Political Report/Roll Call rates Dold's re-election race as a Toss-Up, and Kirk's as Toss-up/Tilts Democrat . During a panel at the convention on the presidential election, Brian Walsh, who served as the National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman during the 2010 and 2012 cycles, named the two lawmakers as examples of moderate Republicans who could get swept up in an anti-GOP wave should billionaire Donald J. Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, be the Republican nominee.
"That worries me because you do need more people who are willing to compromise in government, because that’s how our system of governance is set up,” Walsh told the HRC convention.
Walsh elaborated after the panel in a brief interview that GOP support is necessary for bills like the Equal Rights Act to become law.
"I think if you’re the Human Rights [Campaign], this organization, on the one hand you want to elect as many Democrats as possible," Walsh said. "But for things to get done, you’re going to need Republican support."
Walsh did not anticipate that LGBT rights would be a top issue in the 2016 election.
"I think the Supreme Court decision took a lot of oxygen, for lack of a better term. I just don’t think, for good or bad, that this is going to be a dominating issue in the campaign," Walsh said. "The economy, the general direction of the country, I think that’s going to far overtake even issues like this, issues like guns, pick your range of other issues."
But one issue that will likely be at the forefront of the campaign debate is the Supreme Court. The court now has a vacancy after Justice Antonin Scalia's death on Feb. 13. Senate Republicans have vowed not to consider Obama's nominee, arguing that the next president should fill the vacancy.
For the gay rights activists, the balance of the court is key to preserving their progress thus far. The court rendered the July 2015 same-sex marriage decision on a 5-4 margin.
"That is now the law in all 50 states but we still have so much work to do and important progress to defend,” Robby Mook, campaign manager for Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, told the convention.
The Human Rights Campaign endorsed Clinton in January. Mook received a standing ovation from the convention's attendees, who were also selling Clinton campaign T-shirts and passing out stickers with her "H" logo. (Some merchandise also poked fun at Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan with hats that read, "Make America Gay Again.")
Mook is the first openly gay manager of a major presidential campaign. And he stressed to the activists at the convention that the upcoming election is pivotal to their push for gay rights.
"If the stakes weren't high enough, now the Supreme Court hangs in the balance," Mook said. "All of that progress is on the line in this election."
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