Peter Staley remembers the deafening silence of the Reagan administration during the hellish AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. As gay men died in droves, President Reagan refused, until late in his second term, to even speak the name of the virus that was killing them.
So Staley — an AIDS activist prominently featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “How to Survive a Plague” — was stunned last Friday when his preferred presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, praised Nancy Reagan’s “low-key advocacy” to fight AIDS in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
“Bottom line, it was a WTF moment,” Staley told TheWrap. “It didn’t make any sense.”
Many gay voters have a soft spot for Clinton. She’s appeared at countless gay events and expressed her support for LGBT causes — including in a historic 2011 gay rights speech before the United Nations. In April, she scored major points by featuring a same-sex couple holding hands in her announcement video, a first for any presidential candidate.
But her gaffe threatened to undercut Clinton’s support among one of her most important bases — one that helped power President Obama to his second term.
Sean Denoyer, an Illinois resident who’s already cast his primary vote, had the same reaction as many gay voters. “I was horrified,” he said. “It confirmed my worst fears. I was just starting to feel a little comfortable with her but now I don’t trust her anymore.”
Clinton’s campaign went into overdrive to make amends. Within minutes, Clinton issued a swift apology on Twitter, saying she “misspoke.” She followed up with a longer, more heartfelt mea culpa the following day on Medium.
“To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS,” she wrote. “That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.”
But some say the damage was already done.
“Don’t tell me she ‘misspoke,'” said Jon Cooper, a longtime fundraiser for Obama/Biden. “I’m not buying. Hillary is an intelligent person. She had to be aware of the biggest stain of Reagan’s presidency.”
Cooper, who was part of the Draft Biden Super PAC last year, says he was considering fundraising for either Sanders or Clinton after Biden announced he wasn’t running. But Clinton’s comments have pushed him further toward Sanders.
Moreover, he said some of his donor friends were so spooked by Clinton’s remarks that they’re now waiting to see what happens during Tuesday’s primaries before they dig into their wallets. Still, Cooper admitted that if Clinton wins the nomination, she will get his vote and fundraising help, should she want it.
Losing gay fundraisers and donors is no laughing matter. Not only is the combined buying power of the LGBT American population estimated at more than $884 billion in 2014, many of the Democratic Party’s biggest fundraisers are gay. According to a report by the Washington Post, roughly one in six of Obama’s top 2016 campaign “bundlers,” many of whom are now raising money for Clinton, was gay.
Clinton’s comments about the Reagans had also reignited questions about her sincerity, leaving some convinced that this was yet another calculated political move.
“If you actually listen and watch her speak, it was obvious that she spoke thoughtfully and with a clear audience in mind,” Edward Yaeger, a gay, politically active digital entrepreneur from San Francisco, told The Wrap. “It was an obvious triangulation on her part in order to cozy up to Reagan Democrats.”
But not everyone is convinced that Clinton has suffered irreparable damage.
“It has not made my job more difficult,” attorney and longtime Los Angeles Clinton fundraiser Dana Perlman told TheWrap. “Yes, she made a mistake but she apologized. You have to look at her record. I don’t think there’s a disconnect.”
It’s hard to say whether Clinton’s comments will cost her any votes. Many in the gay community still believe she’s the only viable presidential candidate who’s on their side.
“The reason her comments [about Reagan] were so shocking is that this isn’t a person who is a stranger to the gay community,” Staley said. “She’s fought with us. She’s walked the walk.”
But it’s clear Clinton’s comments left a bad taste in the mouths of many supporters. And it was not Clinton’s first gay faux pas. In October, she told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that the Defense of Marriage Act signed by her husband in 1996 — which essentially allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages — was a defensive action to stop an anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It was an interesting take on the legislation, but one that wasn’t shared by longtime Clinton supporter and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen.
“Pls stop saying DOMA was to prevent something worse. It wasnt, I was there,” she tweeted.
Clinton’s poor choice of words could have at least one silver lining. On Friday, Staley said her campaign staffers called wanting to discuss the issue and find ways to advance the fight against HIV/AIDS. And on Monday, Sanders unveiled a plan to encourage development of new HIV and AIDS treatments.
“Something big is coming on Tuesday,” Staley said. “We’re going to make lemonade out of these lemons.”
Clinton, who mistakenly heaped compliments on Regan for “starting a national conversation” on HIV/AIDS, had ironically started one herself.