Posted: April 10, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The Delaware Liberty Fund, a forum for the state's gay and lesbian voters, had a "Cocktails on the Brandywine" party Sunday in a penthouse apartment, a sunny springtime reception that offered a drawing-room atmosphere and a not-to-be-missed panoramic view of Wilmington.

What everybody really came to see, though, was Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. at his first gay political event since he took office, although he remembers attending one before he was elected in 2000.

It was big that Carney came, a second-term Democrat gathering momentum for governor in 2008 to take time for a community in its early years of breaking into politics and still making some candidates so nervous that they never get around to cashing the Delaware Liberty Fund's contributions. Mainstream it is not.

"We want to be involved. We pay taxes, we vote, we own property, and we're pretty darn good citizens overall," said Bob Martz, the forum's president. "The gay community is a large constituency in Delaware, whether anyone admits it or not."

The movement is far enough along that the gay and lesbian members of the Stonewall Democratic Club have had a seat on their party's state executive committee since 2003, and a summertime social for the Delaware Liberty Fund, which is bipartisan, was the site for a debate between Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and Republican William Swain Lee in the 2004 campaign.

Carney certainly made an effort to attend, charging out of his son's lacrosse game in the third quarter even though he was the coach, changing into a jacket and tie in a parking lot and bucking the weekend traffic around the Christiana Mall to get there, as if to prove his middle initial was not for Johnny "Come-lately" Carney.

He was given the kid-glove treatment that comes from a seven-year-old group still feeling its way and willing to take its friends any way it can get them, particularly one in the running to be the next governor of Delaware.

The movement knows about governors. Its most shining moment was Minner's embrace of gay anti-discrimination legislation, designated as House Bill 99 in previous sessions and House Bill 36 in this one, to give the cause legitimacy.

The questioning was living-room polite from about 20 people who literally called Carney their guest, prompting him to observe good-naturedly that he was accustomed to worse. "I am lobbied full time," he quipped.

Carney was praised for backing the gay rights bill, a stand that helped to earn him the Delaware Liberty Fund's endorsement when he ran for a second term in 2004. It led to a nearly-naked acknowledgement of the currency of politics, the we-help-you-and-you-help-us tradeoff that makes the votes flow.

"I'm hoping that when he runs for something else in the future, we're going to be able to do that again," Martz said.

Carney was asked for his views on the chances of enacting the gay rights bill, domestic partnership benefits and civil unions.

He said he would continue to work behind the scenes for the anti-discrimination legislation, which has been passed by the state House of Representatives but denied a vote in the state Senate, although he was unwilling to criticize the senators who were fellow Democrats blocking it.

He said he favored domestic partnership benefits but never quite got around to talking about civil unions. Asked about it afterwards, he equated domestic partnerships with civil unions.

Domestic partnerships, however, can be recognized by corporations evaluating eligibility for benefits -- given by DuPont and Bank of America, for example, but not Wal-Mart -- while civil unions are domestic arrangements formalized by states to bestow the same rights and responsibilities of marriage.

From almost any perspective, it was a positive afternoon, even if Carney was different from everybody else in the room. On that laid-back Sunday, he was the only one wearing a tie.