David Catania has been one of George W. Bush's most loyal supporters. The Washington, D.C., city councilman has raised nearly $80,000 for the president's re-election. He's a Bush delegate to this summer's GOP convention and holds a seat on the platform committee, which shapes the party's official agenda. But last week Catania, like many other gay Republicans, was furious at the president's backing of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Now he's dropping his fund-raising efforts and no longer plans to vote for Bush. "You know the concept of buyer's remorse? I've got it," he says. "I want my money back." Now Catania intends to fight the amendment on the platform committee and work against a second Bush term.
Catania is a member of the "Austin 12," an informal group of gay Republicans who advised the Bush 2000 campaign, serving as a sounding board on gay issues. In April of that year, the 12 traveled to Austin to meet with the then Governor Bush, who was eager to burnish his image as a "compassionate conservative." He'd resisted meeting with the chief gay GOP group, the Log Cabin Republicans--they'd backed his presidential-primary rival John McCain--but agreed to sit down with a dozen handpicked gay supporters. In an emotional meeting at his campaign headquarters, Bush listened carefully and declared himself "a better man" for their visit. But four years later, even Bush's most devoted gay supporters are wavering. "I have always accepted the president's opposition to gay marriage," says Charles Francis, a longtime Bush family friend and a D.C. consultant who organized the Austin meeting. But for the Austin 12--all of whom spoke with NEWSWEEK last week--Bush's endorsement of a constitutional amendment is a step too far. "It writes inequality into the founding document, and we can never support that," Francis says.
The 12 argue that Bush had a solid record on gay issues until the marriage amendment. In the Austin meeting, they asked him for several assurances--a gay speaker at the 2000 convention, a promise not to repeal executive orders that prohibited discrimination against gays in federal jobs, a willingness to hire gays in his administration. Bush delivered on them all. He even appointed one of the 12, Scott Evertz, as his first AIDS czar. A White House aide acknowledged that Bush has friends "who are homosexual. He understands their position, but they might understand that he has his principles."
That did little to help the sense of betrayal last week among the Austin 12. None was consulted by the White House before the decision. Some, like Evertz and former congressman Steve Gunderson, say they are deeply disappointed but so far continue to support Bush. But New York real-estate developer Donald Capoccia was so disgusted that he quit his Bush-appointed post on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. Like Catania, many of the 12 say they won't vote for Bush at all. That could cost him not only the estimated 1 million gay voters--a quarter of the gay vote--who supported him in 2000, but like-minded swing voters too. Still, Bush will likely have many on his side: polls show slowly rising public support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Now that Bush has formally called for the marriage amendment, more-radical activists are whispering about the idea of an '80s-style outing campaign against prominent gay Republicans (and their relatives) to highlight what they say is obvious hypocrisy--a strategy the 12 oppose. "I think it will get uglier than anything we saw on AIDS," says Gunderson. "This country will be more polarized than we've been in decades." That's exactly what the Austin 12 had hoped to avoid in the first place.