Normally I avoid writing about politics, but given all that’s gone on in the political arena when it comes to gay rights this historic year, I’ve decided to try my hand at a political story.
I was fortunate to be at the steps of the Supreme Court on the day that august body decided its cases on same sex marriage. Amidst all the fanfare, I noticed a small handwritten sign that simply said, “Thank You Ted and David.” It didn’t really register until later when I saw lawyers Ted Olson and David Boise interviewed on CNN. They’re the unlikely pair—a conservative and a liberal—who squared off in 2000 in Bush v. Gore but who now had joined together to take on Prop 8 because it was the right thing to do.
It’s easy to miss such a story amid all the celebration of victory, and it got me thinking about another story about another unlikely duo in the fight for LGBT rights here in Delaware. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Delaware Stonewall Democrats, an organization launched by two men to build better bridges between Delaware’s LGBT community and the Delaware Democratic Party.
To understand the story, we must flash back to 2003. That year, a bill known as HB 99 outlawing sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and insurance had been passed by the Delaware House of Representatives for the second time. Senate President Pro Tempore Thurman Adams—a Democrat—received it and promised it would receive a full-Senate vote. He then assigned the bill to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by the extremely anti-gay Sen. James Vaughn—another Democrat. For the second time, the bill died in Committee.
Here in Rehoboth, openly gay city commissioner Mark Aguirre introduced a sexual orientation anti-discrimination ordinance covering housing, employment, public works contracting, and public accommodations for the city. The council subsequently passed it unanimously.
Amidst this tempestuous background, two men decided the time was right to push the Delaware Democratic Party further on LGBT issues. The first man, Peter Schott, was an outspoken activist and seasoned politico with twenty-five years experience in the US House of Representatives. Born in the Bronx, he’d cut his political teeth protesting the Vietnam War and then social injustice with the likes of Bella Abzug. Schott had retired to Rehoboth Beach and was getting involved in local Democratic politics.
Recognized around Rehoboth for his progressive passion (and his many political cause buttons) Peter had good connections with gay DC politicos, many of who vacationed in Rehoboth. He had been one of the original founders of the National Stonewall Democrats and had been a leader in the District of Columbia Democratic Party, twice serving as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Schott was certain the Stonewall movement could help things in Delaware.
Tim Spies, on the other hand, was a genteel native son of Delaware who was active in local Rehoboth politics. Historic preservation was his passion, but the former lawyer had become convinced that the power of the Sussex County boll weevil Democrats in stalling progress on LGBT issues needed to be broken. His “front porch” political style couldn’t have been more different than Schott’s, and many a man had been won over by Spies’ silver tongue and classic rye Manhattan with just the right amount of bitters. He had a decent network upstate where organizations like the Delaware Liberty Fund and the ACLU of Delaware were already actively organizing, educating, and lobbying for LGBT equal rights.
Brought together by a mutual friend from Philadelphia, the unlikely pair made plans to start a Stonewall Democrats chapter in Delaware. It would be based in Rehoboth Beach and tap into the growing gay and lesbian community, both full-time and part-time. Its partisan work would complement the efforts going on upstate. The duo began recruiting volunteers to form a board and draft the organization’s bylaws. Tim Spies was elected the first president.
Two important events helped cement the group. First, Spies met with an old law school colleague Rick Bayard, the head of the Delaware Democratic Party and scion of an important Delaware political family. Bayard welcomed the new organization and immediately gave it a seat on the Party’s Executive Committee. Second, Schott secured US Representative Barney Frank to headline the group’s first fundraiser. Close to 300 people attended the organization’s kick-off fundraiser, including then Governor Ruth Ann Minner, then Treasurer Jack Markell, and New Castle County Executive Chris Coons. Also in attendance was a little known Democrat named Matt Denn who was in the early stages of his campaign for State Insurance Commissioner.
With money in the bank and statewide visibility, the group went to work, focusing initially on non-discrimination legislation. Delaware Stonewall began providing financial support to those Democratic candidates who were supportive of LGBT causes. To this day, almost 90% of funds raised by the organization goes to support candidates. Over the past ten years, Delaware Stonewall worked alongside other groups and activists to push state Democrats on every piece of significant LGBT legislation from Delaware’s hospital visitation law and non-discrimination bill (finally) to the civil union bill, marriage equality legislation, and the gender identity bill.
A lot has happened in Delaware over the past ten years and a lot of people have worked extremely hard to make it happen. There are many stories like the one I’ve just recounted in this column and many people who should be recognized for their contributions along the way. But, there’s still much to be done. If you don’t believe me just ask candidates Andy Staton and Marie Mayor about the extreme homophobia they faced in their recent political campaigns here in Sussex County.
On July 20, the Barbara Gittings Delaware Stonewall Democrats (as the organization is now known) will celebrate its 10th anniversary with an afternoon event at Mariachi’s Restaurant here in Rehoboth. The event will honor State Senator Karen Peterson, a long time advocate for equal rights who spoke passionately about her partner during the debate over same sex marriage on the floor of Legislative Hall, and feature US Congressman John Carney and openly gay Congressman Jared Polis from the 2nd Congressional District in Colorado. If you’re interested in Democratic politics, it’s the place to be.
You can be certain Peter Schott will be there, a bottle of water in hand and a half dozen political buttons pinned to his Stonewall t-shirt. He’ll be working the crowd, thinking about the next battle. Tim Spies may be harder to find. If you see a gentleman with round horn rimmed glasses and a seersucker shirt standing at the back of the crowd, that’s probably him. More likely he’ll be on his shady screened porch reading a book, out of the public eye.
Politics. Sometimes it does make strange bedfellows.
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town. See More Rich Barnett