Columns » Warwick Sabin

Reality bites

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On June 20, Mike Beebe went to an off-the-record meeting with the Stonewall Democrats to explain why his gubernatorial campaign refused their financial contribution.

Stonewall advocates in behalf of the gay community, but it is not an official auxiliary of the state Democratic Party. In fact, party officials barely acknowledge its existence, and Beebe admitted that he returned the group’s check because he did not want to be publicly associated with it.

But he cared enough to try to soothe the hurt feelings of the membership. After all, some of the Stonewall Democrats are prominent and influential, and quite a few are capable of making substantial campaign donations. (Personal checks from individuals would not be sent back, of course.)

According to sources who attended the meeting, the discussion turned to the question of how a Beebe administration would be any better for gays than one controlled by his Republican opponent, Asa Hutchinson. Toward that end, someone asked Beebe what he would do if a lawmaker sponsored a bill like HB 1119 from the 2005 legislative session, which would have prohibited gays and any unmarried couples from being foster parents. (It passed the House but failed in a Senate committee.)

There are differing accounts of what Beebe said exactly, whether he only promised to work to stop it before it reached his desk, or if he said he would actually veto it. But all agree he committed to trying to prevent such a measure from becoming law.

Nine days later, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously struck down the existing ban on gay foster parents that was instituted by the Child Welfare Review Board. Beebe’s initial reaction was cautious and moderate.

“The court has ruled on this and the agency will have to abide by that ruling,” Beebe said in a prepared statement on June 29.

However, the very next day he changed his tone and his tune, expressing support for a law to prevent gays from becoming foster parents — preferably writing it into the state constitution.

“I don’t think, given today’s society and the controversy, it would be in the best interest of the child to be” placed in a home with a gay foster parent, Beebe asserted on June 30.

Coincidentally, Beebe hosted a meeting earlier that day with Bill Halter and Dustin McDaniel, the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and his campaign pollsters from the Global Strategy Group.

It was during that meeting that Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke to reporters after returning from a two-week Asian trip and used strong language to condemn the Supreme Court’s decision. Huckabee’s call for a legislative response prompted the Democrats to match his rhetoric and ensure the Republicans could not extract an advantage from the issue.

That was certainly the safe call. But was it necessary?

The Arkansas Poll released last fall by the University of Arkansas shows the population is evenly divided on the question of preventing gays from serving as foster parents, with 46 percent in favor of such a ban, 46 percent against it, and the remaining 8 percent not responding. Within the same survey, attitudes toward gay adoption are more relaxed, with 66 percent inclined to allow it and 26 percent opposed.

Only 15 percent of the Arkansas Poll respondents said that gays should be able to marry, proving that people are able to distinguish among the various issues, despite Huckabee’s attempt on June 30 to connect the popular 2004 gay marriage ban to his call for a gay foster parent ban: “I would expect the legislature to deal with this since the state Constitution by way of 74 percent of its voters already have,” he said.

And last Saturday, while testing the presidential waters in Iowa, Huckabee went one step further and suggested that only married couples should be able to serve as foster parents.

Beebe, who says his thoughts on this issue are shaped by being the son of a single mother, disagrees with Huckabee on that, because single foster parents have a “proven track record.”

But that is true of gay foster parents, single or otherwise, and Beebe still would ban them strictly for being gay. Beebe said “gay people can be extraordinarily loving and wonderful parents,” but that a certain stigma would be attached to a child raised by a gay foster parent, similar to his experience growing up with a single mother in the 1950s.

“Like it or not, there is still a strong sentiment out there that could, in my judgment, affect those kids if they’re in a gay foster home,” Beebe said. “My own experience has to do with the same kind of external forces I felt in a different age in a different context. … I’m not defending the stigma. I’m just recognizing the reality.”

Even better, with his personal understanding of the unfairness and the unique powers of the governor’s office, he could try to change it.

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