At a time when GOP candidates continue their party’s appeal to values voters, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary offered her own definition — a sign that President Obama welcomes the debate. “This administration strongly believes that every American should play by the same rules and have the same shot to achieve their dreams. If you work hard, you do a good job, that’s how you should be judged,” Sebelius told the 1,400 people gathered in the Charlotte Convention Center for the North Carolina gala of the Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay and lesbian civil rights group.
"You shouldn’t be judged for what you look like, where you live, how you worship," Sebelius said. "And, for God’s sake, you shouldn’t be judged by who you love."
The backdrop to the Saturday night event was the May 8 vote that could amend the North Carolina Constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman. It was reflected in every speech and conversation in the crowd.
In what resembled a political rally, the choice between what Democrats and Republicans stand for could not have been clearer. Sebelius ticked off initiatives under the Obama administration: repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, instructions that the Department of Justice no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, directives to U.S. embassies that LGBT rights be “at the top of the list” in any discussion of human rights anywhere in the world. Eliminating the HIV/AIDS travel ban paves the way for the International AIDS Conference in Washington this July.
Sebelius reminded the crowd of achievements in her own department under hard-won and still-besieged health care reform, from extending Medicaid benefits for “childless adults who had been locked out of the system” to collecting data on LGBT heath needs.
All of it could be “wiped out in a heartbeat” if Obama is not re-elected, she said, naming North Carolina as “hugely important” in November. She called recent Washington State and Maryland approval of same-sex marriage “new victories,” and urged North Carolina voters to defeat Amendment One in May.
Former Kansas governor Sebelius has been something of a lightning rod on social issues, praised and attacked from all sides. When she was governor, a Kansas marriage amendment similar to North Carolina’s passed, though she did not support it. Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann has asked that the Catholic Sebelius no longer receive the Eucharist because of her pro-choice views on abortion. She was said to be among Obama advisers who recommended his pre-compromise decision on Catholic institutions’ coverage of contraception. But she was criticized by pro-choice advocates for overruling the Food and Drug Administration's recommendation to make the “morning after pill,” Plan B One-Step, available over the counter for women under 17.
Sebelius' Charlotte speech won’t win her any friends in the North Carolina Catholic hierarchy, which has banded with conservative groups to work for passage of the marriage amendment. But the crowd at the gala was friendly and heavily Democratic. Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese, leaving his post to be a national co-chair of the Obama campaign, said in his introduction of Sebelius that he would “do everything in my power between now and November to re-elect President Obama.” He said that a President Romney or a President Santorum would be “emboldened to act on that belief system that had gotten them there,” one not open to LGBT equality.
The line-up of Democratic elected officials a the Charlotte gala included U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan; Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who is running for the party’s nomination for governor; City Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield, Charlotte’s first openly gay elected official; and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, who is running for the U.S. House in the traditionally Republican district of retiring Rep. Sue Myrick. (Roberts, who said the state “needs to legally recognize the relationships between same-sex couples,” told me she thinks Myrick’s district is “eager for someone who’s reasonable and listens well, not someone who’s looking for a fight.”)
Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx’s welcome was a first. Previous Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, now running for governor, chose not to appear or issue a welcome letter when the group met in Charlotte in 2005. Foxx primarily took an economic-development angle when he said, “I am going to be voting against Amendment One.” Foxx spoke of gay and lesbian police officers and city workers who confided they were unable to take bereavement or leave to care for partners. And he worried about what would happen if a community’s reputation as one “that embraces its diversity” is tarnished. Businesses “do not want a 'Not Wanted' sign” hung over their doors.
If anything, North Carolina businesses are leaders on the issue of LGBT equality. Representatives of corporate sponsors Wells Fargo, Time Warner Cable and Bank of America touted their inclusive policies, with Wells Fargo noting the Duke Energy tower lit in rainbow colors for the occasion.
The DNC convention and host committees filled three tables, convention CEO Steve Kerrigan told me. “It’s a no-brainer for us to be here,” he said. “As the first openly gay CEO of the DNCC, I’m thrilled to be here.” Kerrigan, who has moved to Charlotte to run convention planning, said of the amendment that he is leaving it to North Carolina, “the state I have grown to love,” to “do the right thing.”
How you define American values — On May 8 and in November — will determine what that right thing may be.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post's “She the People” blog, The Root, NPR and the Nieman Watchdog blog. Her “Keeping It Positive” segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 a.m. on Fox News Rising Charlotte, and she was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.