"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
President Bush’s decision to support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage continues to have unintended consequences inside the Republican Party. The latest fallout came last Thursday when the openly gay District of Columbia councilmember David Catania, who is credited with pumping new energy into the often dormant Republican Party in Washington, resigned his leadership position after the party chairman refused to certify Catania as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Catania remains, for now, a registered Republican, but he says he will not vote for Bush.
“I’ve spent six and a half years trying to build this local party,” Catania told Salon. “This was not an easy decision or one I came to lightly. But in the end I just couldn’t see any way I could stay.”
D.C. Republican Party chairwoman Betsy Werronen, along with other party leaders, according to the Washington Blade, a gay weekly, had “picked Catania and other local gay Republicans to run on an uncontested slate of delegates and alternate delegates to the Republican Convention in New York City in late August. D.C. Republicans elected the slate at a party caucus that same month. Werronen also appointed Catania to represent the D.C. GOP convention delegation on the party’s national platform committee.”
After Bush moved to support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Catania announced that he would not support Bush for reelection. On Thursday, Werronen, who had described Catania as a “shining star” of the Republican Party, stripped him of his delegation status. He then walked away from his D.C. party leadership position, fed up with the national party apparatus and what he calls “this cabal of [Republican] geniuses who have cooked up ways to exclude Americans.”
It’s a painful separation for someone who was personally summoned to Austin, Texas, in 2000 to share some face time with candidate Bush. During the primaries Bush refused to meet with the openly gay Log Cabin Republicans, who had endorsed his rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. But after effectively securing the nomination, and anxious to bolster his “compassionate conservative” credentials, Bush in April 2000 invited a handpicked group of 12 gay activists to his Texas campaign headquarters. Designated a GOP “Maverick” for being under 40 and raising more than $50,000 for Bush, Catania was among the so-called Austin 12. Thanks in part to their hard work, Bush won 25 percent of the gay vote in 2000, or 1 million votes, according to exit polls.
A white councilman in a city whose population is 75 percent minority — and a Republican elected official in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 9 to 1, Catania is used to operating as the odd man out. But he says the Republican Party, and specifically the form it takes during reelection mode, has become intolerable for gays. “The fact of the matter is, there ain’t no there there anymore,” says Catania.
Meanwhile, the White House’s hardball approach to gay marriage (none of the Austin 12 were consulted on the matter) has created additional tension in Washington’s gay community, with some wondering privately whether any closeted gays are working for Bush and his anti-gay-marriage agenda. As the Washington Blade noted, “Gay political organizations, both partisan and nonpartisan, have so far declined to formally reprimand the Bush campaign on its lack of diversity. Yet, many gay Republicans, including some at Log Cabin, insist that there is in fact gay representation at the top level of the operation. But in an attempt to avoid an ’80s-style outing campaign against prominent members of the party, members of Log Cabin and the Austin 12 have refused to divulge any information about the lives of Bush’s closeted staffers.”
In an interview on Monday, Catania described the simmering controversy.
About the events of last week, I know you had expressed your displeasure with the Republican platform regarding gay marriage, but were you surprised in the end that your delegation status was taken away?
This was the act of a single person, the chairman of the party [in Washington]. In fact, we had a delegation meeting not too long ago when she first raised the issue that she was going to do this to me, and there was a lot of pushback from the delegation. If this had been a vote of the delegation, she would never have succeeded with this. She, in an arbitrary way, simply has made a singular decision that she would not certify me.
Her argument was that you had publicly said you would not support George Bush and therefore you should not be at the convention.
Her argument is a curious one. In order to be certified as a delegate you have to be a District resident, [you have to be] a registered voter by one year in the District of Columbia, and you have to be willing to support the president’s nomination at the convention. Obviously I fulfill the first two, and I would vote for Bush’s nomination at the convention, so on its face I met the requirements of being a delegate. The issue is, she wanted me to state that I would be supportive of the president in November, a position, frankly, that no other member of the delegation has been asked to swear a blood oath to. Certainly no one — I’m not an imbecile — wants their delegates breaking rank. It looks bad and it’s embarrassing to have any of your delegates say, “Look, pal, I’m parting company at the end of this party.” And that’s where I am. I’ve been very clear I’m not going to support him in November.
Why did you still want to attend the convention as a delegate?
I was willing to support Bush at the convention because my other motivation is the platform. [Catania was supposed to serve on the convention's platform committee.] And it’s not just the issues of gay and lesbian civil rights or marriage. I’ve been elected three times citywide. As a member of the D.C. Council, I have a whole series of urban agenda items I’ve worked on that include applying Republican principles to urban problems and finding creative solutions that work, and I wanted to be at the convention to talk about how the Republican Party could construct an urban agenda for itself.
The convention serves two purposes: to nominate the president and to articulate what it is the party stands for. I couldn’t care less about George Bush. I’m not worried about the next four years; I’m worried about the next 40.
What has the feedback been since last week?
From Republicans and Democrats and independents, I’ve had nothing but uniform affirmation and approval. I’ve spent six and a half years trying to build this local party. This was not an easy decision or one I came to lightly. I think I’ve brought a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm to this party, and I’m credited with its growth, so it wasn’t easy to leave [my leadership position]. But in the end I just couldn’t see any way I could stay.
Some people watching this unfold might say, “Well, wouldn’t the same feeling apply to your party affiliation as to your leadership position?” Are you still working on that decision?
Look, this is a process I’ve never done before. I’ve never taken a party — a visceral part of who I’ve been all my adult life — and left it and all the people who are associated with it. I’ve never done this before, and it’s an incremental process. At this point I remain a registered Republican, although I have distanced myself from the party apparatus, from the cabal of geniuses who have cooked up ways to exclude Americans. I’m not a part of that anymore. As to whether or not I’ll remain in this party, I’ve got to wait and see what happens in November. If this party continues its 40-year march to the right, then I can’t rationalize [staying in] it anymore.
You went down to Austin in April 2000 and met with then-candidate Bush, correct?
So at one point you had high hopes for where the party was going in terms of the issues that were important to you, right?
I have to say that before this push for a constitutional amendment [to ban gay marriages], the commitments made to me in April 2000 had been kept. I went to Austin with four things I wanted. I wanted an openly gay or lesbian speaker at the Republican Convention — and you’ll recall [Bush] agreed and he announced that Rep. Jim Kolbe [R-Ariz.] would speak, and Kolbe did. I asked that there be a continuation of the nondiscrimination orders against gays and lesbians in the federal workforce that President Clinton had signed. Mind you, [that was] a big deal in 2000. The party’s track record had not been stellar, so for the president to continue Clinton’s executive order was a huge win. It would have cost him nothing to simply cut that tie. We asked that he appoint openly gay [men and women], and he kept that promise. And we asked that he continue the dialogue — and that’s where it faltered.
What’s interesting is how they tried to float this constitutional amendment with a patina of tolerance, in that [they'll] continue to allow civil unions. That in and of itself reflects a certain measurable improvement over where the party was four years ago. You have the president basically saying we can accept civil unions but we can’t accept marriages. Where they lost me was enshrining this in the Constitution.
Where, if at all, do you think the issue might hurt the president politically?
I don’t see this issue hurting him at all. It was selected because it’s a winner.
What about the exit polls from 2000 that suggested Bush won 25 percent of the gay vote?
That’s not important at this point because it’s not like we all live in the same state, so we can’t move a state. It’s a smidgen here and a smidgen there — although in a close election like that in 2000 it could make a difference. Right now they’re not worried about us anymore. And when I say “they,” I don’t mean the president, I mean the folks around him. They want to win Midwestern states. The election will be won or lost in the Midwestern states.
Among Catholic voters in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania?
Actually, in poll numbers Catholics are more “live and let live” on this issue than Protestants. It’s not about winning Catholics, it’s about winning seniors. And they need to win back the undereducated portion of the Midwestern population — the blue-collar whites. This is an issue that polls well among those two groups.
Last month Log Cabin members in North Carolina were tossed out of the Republican State Convention, and then you were uninvited to the Republican National Convention. Do you think others will follow your lead, particularly those who have been active in the Republican Party?
Whether or not a few [gay] leaders stay with the party until they drop dead isn’t the issue. The fact of the matter is, there ain’t no there there anymore. The constitutional amendment issue is kind of a watershed moment. It reminds me of the 1964 election, and this is why: In 1960 Richard Nixon won 26 percent of the black vote. We forget that it was 44 years ago, but the Republicans were still winning a quarter of the African-American vote. That went from 26 percent in 1960 to 12 percent in 1964. What made that happen? [Nominee Barry] Goldwater was opposed to the 1963 Civil Rights Act, and the African-American community viewed that as a betrayal. For 40 years, we have never as a party recovered from that.
In 2000 George Bush won 25 percent of the gay vote. You see the parallels? The president decided to trot out a constitutional amendment to remind us, even though we are already reminded daily, that we are second-class citizens. In case we harbored any illusions that we were equal, he wants to write this into the Constitution. He’ll be lucky if he gets 12 percent [of the gay vote] in this election.
Republicans may not care. Demographically, though, Republicans cannot continue to build the party by subtraction: no blacks, no Hispanics, no gays or lesbians, no abortion rights. Pretty soon your whole electoral base is the same complexion, the same orientation, the same socioeconomic level. Who would want a country that’s governed like that?
There was an article in the most recent Washington Blade wondering whether openly gays and lesbians serve either on the Bush reelection team or in the White House.
Well, there are. I’m not going to get into names, but there are openly gay members on the domestic policy staff, in the inner circles of the White House, in the campaign, in the RNC, in the military — everywhere. The difference is that they understand the unspoken rule, which is, Just shut up about it.
But are they really open? How do you define “open”?
There are gay people in all those positions. As for “open,” it’s a [sliding] scale; it’s not a big rainbow on your lapel on one extreme or a self-hating introvert on the other.
The Blade article suggested that there is a rising level of frustration in the gay community. And while nobody suggested people would be outed, there did seem to be a feeling of “Wait a minute, why are these gays and lesbians serving in the White House and on the reelection campaign if the party is in the middle of drastic rightward march?” Is there going to be some sort of friction, and do any of the people serving in those positions need to be concerned?
As long as people are loyal and continue to do their job, I don’t think they’re going to be fired. These are individuals whom I respect for making their decisions. It’s not my place to tell them how to live their lives.
Should anyone be concerned that there might be calls for gays to come out if they’re going to work for an administration that supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages?
I find that conversation stupid and don’t waste my time with it.
You’re not concerned things might slip into that mode?
No, and I wouldn’t participate in it. Mostly because, who cares? That’s not the issue. The issue is whether there are any legitimate gay Republican spokesmen or spokeswomen who can bring votes to the administration. I don’t think there are.
You mentioned the Republican Party’s 40-year march to the right and the cabal in the White House, yet you don’t seem to blame the president personally. Who are you most upset or disappointed with?
You know, I don’t think that adds a lot — whom I blame or don’t blame.
Well, as you’ve said, you’ve devoted a lot of time and energy to the Republican Party.
It would be easy an easy decision for me [to quit a leadership position] if the president were an inherently evil person. He is not. I’ve had a chance to spend time with him on a number of occasions, a couple of which were with my partner, and the president could not have been more gracious, could not have been more ingratiating and outgoing and demonstratively tolerant. So I’m still having a difficult time reconciling the man who, when you are in his company, personifies live and let live with the man who really believes in this constitutional amendment. I don’t know who in the administration dreamed this thing up. I suspect it was the people who are responsible for the election strategy — people rationalize all kinds of things in the name of winning.
Do you think the president really does believe in the amendment?
I’m having a hard time, frankly, believing that his heart is in this. I think the president has had a number of challenges with the conservative base — with the growth of government during his tenure, with the out-of-control deficits during his tenure — and I think this decision [on the gay marriage amendment] was too easy. That’s what makes it even more disappointing.
Being thrown under the bus?
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)