WASHINGTON When Sen. Kay Hagan takes the podium Saturday, in her first public address in Charlotte since taking office, she'll face a group that's become a key part of the Democratic constituency – gay rights advocates.
That hasn't always been a comfortable choice for politicians because of the potential backlash from folks who don't support gay rights.
“That's a gutsy thing to do, though I guess less so all the time,” said Ted Arrington, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte. “They've become a more important part of the Democratic coalition.”
The group, the Carolinas chapter of the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay rights advocacy group, said Hagan will be the first statewide elected federal official from North Carolina to address its annual fundraising dinner. Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., had declined invitations to speak, though he did host meetings with the group, said Joni Madison, a member of HRC's national board who lives in Hillsborough.
The group was famously dissed a few years ago when it moved its dinner to Charlotte and Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, refused to send the routine welcome note the city usually uses to greet conferees and other large gatherings.
“Senator Hagan has been very fair to our issues and very open minded,” Madison said. “She's really shown she's not willing to play old politics. She's going to have open, frank dialogues. It's really refreshing.”
Arrington said he thinks the speech by Hagan is important to mend any fences from her defeat of an openly gay candidate in the Democratic primary, investment banker Jim Neal. Hagan, who initially pulled out of the contest, got back in after heavy recruiting by national Democrats when Neal seemed like the most viable candidate on their ticket. Hagan, D-N.C., agrees with many of the gay community's issues – nondiscrimination against gays in the workplace and stricter penalties for people committing hate crimes against gays, among others, said Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina.
But she, like many of her Democratic counterparts including President Obama, is opposed to allowing marriage to be legalized for same-sex couples though she hasn't stated opposition to civil unions.
However, during her Senate campaign, Hagan was the subject of a N.C. Republican Party mailing attacking her for refusing to back a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The same ad also criticized her for attending a fundraiser hosted at the home of atheists, part of the “godless Americans” controversy that helped Hagan solidify her win over Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C.
Federal Marriage Amendment supporters running as democrats failed to win. Kay Hagan won as an Federal Marriage Amendment opponent in a southern state.
Contrast Sen. Kay Hagan with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who dissed a gay conference at the University of Minnesota shortly after being elected.