At Allard’s Conference, Bipartisanship Rules — Mostly

Posted June 18, 2004 at 6:17pm

For the seventh year in a row, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) sponsored a “Capital Conference” for visiting Coloradans.

On the surface, the conference was, as always, a forum for bipartisan goodwill. This year, though, there was an 800-pound gorilla in the room: Allard’s constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Subtle though its presence was, every attendee — from the Fort Collins high school senior who dubbed marriage “a religious union” to the Louisville mayor who jovially declared himself “desperately opposed” to Allard’s bill — was aware of the proposed amendment’s existence.

No one, though, wanted to broach what has arguably become the new focus for the nation’s ongoing culture wars.

“Which one is that?” laughed Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), when asked by this reporter about Allard’s controversial constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. (For the record, Cornyn supports the amendment.)

“People have ideas,” added Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — as blandly as if Allard had proposed renaming a local community center. “They have a right to” them, Dodd said.

Allard’s conference in the Russell Caucus Room brought together a politically mixed group of Coloradans to hear from a roster of Senators that spanned the ideological color spectrum, from Conrad Burns red to Edward Kennedy blue. It was co-sponsored by Colorado State University and the University of Denver.

The event is modeled after a similar program held by Allard’s Democratic predecessor, Sen. Tim Wirth, during his Congressional tenure. Roughly 120 Coloradans plunked down a $250 registration fee plus air fare and lodging to attend. The crowd, according to most participants, was split between Democrats and Republicans, with perhaps a modest edge to GOPers.

That is largely because the event aims to be “educational” — not political — and is billed as a forum to introduce Colorado constituents to Congress and “the people in it,” Allard said. Attorneys could even earn continuing-education credit for attending.

No less a figure than the Liberal Lion, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), appeared to succumb to the flood of bipartisan good feelings. Though the Massachusetts Senator delivered a to-be-expected, bar-graph-aided address about the need for more federal funding for education and the economic plight of middle class America, the most explicitly partisan exchange in his presentation had more to do with a pooch than with policy.

It came when Allard, a veterinarian, quipped that Kennedy’s Portuguese water dog, Splash, had eagerly responded to the call “Here, Republican!” Kennedy gamely shot back that he’d have to have a word with that dog. He and Allard even reminisced about how Allard’s father, then a Democrat, had campaigned for Kennedy’s brother during the 1960 presidential election.

“He and I differ,” said Kennedy later as a gaggle of aides hustled him back to his office. “It doesn’t have to tip over into a personal situation.”

Asked if he had personally discussed his opposition to the amendment with Allard, Kennedy hedged, noting he’d been at the conference for only about 20 minutes.

“He has a meeting,” an aide said, irritatedly, as the senior Senator from Massachusetts was guided behind closed doors.

Indeed, the day tripped along rather swimmingly with almost no reference to the amendment barring gay marriage, which the Senate will vote on in mid-July.

At first, even Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who was met with a barrage of digital camera flashes, managed to steer clear of contentious issues. But then, an elderly man in the audience provided an opening that proved irresistible. He asked the New York Senator if there was any element of life she didn’t think the federal government should enter, and a slight crack appeared.

Clinton — steely-eyed, flawlessly coiffed and decked in a royal blue Mandarin-style jacket and black slacks — shot back, “It shouldn’t tell you who to marry. It shouldn’t tell you whether or not to have a child.”

The audience looked on in silence.

Reflecting the apparent potency of pocket-book politics, attendees reserved their few passionate outbursts for economic commentary.

In one of the more pointedly partisan moments, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.) elicited a wild burst of applause when he accused Democrats of “discouraging entrepreneurship.” Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, who later that day was confirmed for a fifth term, received a standing ovation for remarks that were strictly off-the-record.

Allard, who always sends out invitations to all 100 members of the world’s most exclusive club, said his sponsorship of the antigay marriage measure had had no impact on his ability to attract bipartisan speakers.

“It was easier this year,” said the two-term Senator. In 2002, the year Allard was up for re-election, it was “much tougher.” That year, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) sent out a memo to all Democratic Senators asking them to refrain from attending, Allard Chief of Staff Sean Conway said. (In the bipartisan spirit of the day, he added, generously, “We understood.”)

“Wayne’s such a great guy,” gushed Norm Mineta as he sat quietly waiting for his moment on the soapbox. Mineta, a former Democratic House Member from California who was later named Transportation secretary by President Bush, is by now an old-pro at bipartisanship. “No one wants to say no to Wayne.”

If Members at the podium were content to skirt the issue du jour, the crowd appeared equally content to follow their lead. None of the attendees made a point of bringing up their junior Senator’s proposal.

“We really didn’t discuss anything for that matter,” asserted one Republican, a woman of Indian heritage who wore a yellow sari and who flitted in and out of the conference all day with her Kodak disposable camera and 14-year-old daughter in tow. “You barely have time to give your card to each other.”

But for all the bipartisanship on display, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank (D) — one of only three openly gay Members of Congress and a past speaker at Allard’s event — couldn’t stomach going this year. He said he did not attend because Allard is “the lead sponsor of the anti-gay marriage amendment.”

“He invited me when we were sitting at the hearing” on the constitutional amendment, said Frank, before bitterly harrumphing, “when he was trying to make me unconstitutional.”

Still, Frank said he understands why fellow liberals and gay-rights supporters such as Clinton and Kennedy would attend the Allard event, and he said he doesn’t hold it against them.

“I accept the fact that I have a different mode of operating than a lot of my colleagues,” the 12-term Representative said. Events such as Allard’s conference enhance Members’ reputations and show “how bipartisan they are.”

However, given the personal nature of the issue to him, Frank added: “There has to be a limit to how hypocritical you can be.”