Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Race and the Democratic Primary

Ever since Senator Barack Obama announced his presidential campaign, one issue has dominated his candidacy more than any other, and following his first place showing in the Iowa caucuses and his close second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, that issue has now come to the forefront. I'm talking, of course, about Race.

Roger "Race" Bannon has been a close friend of Senator Obama since the latter's childhood. Readers of Obama's Dreams from My Father will recall the story of Obama's 1970 meeting in Jakarta with Bannon and his companions, Dr. Benton Quest and Quest's son Jonathan and ward Hadji Singh. Although their initial meeting in Jakarta lasted only a few days, Obama became close friends with Bannon and the Quests, often visiting Bannon and the Quests at their compound in Key Palm, Florida, and rooming with Jonathan Quest when the two attended Columbia University together.

Bannon of course is a well-known gay rights activist, first gaining notoriety after being expelled from the Secret Service in 1971 after openly acknowledging his relationship with Dr. Quest. Since then, Bannon and Quest have been at the forefront of the gay rights movement, being among the first gay couples to marry after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004.

Obama's longstanding friendship with Bannon first surfaced as an issue in 2004 during his run for the United States Senate. During a televised debate with his Republican opponent, Alan Keyes, on October 21, Keyes denounced Bannon and Quest's relationship in harsh, uncompromising language and called upon Obama to prove his commitment to Christianity by renouncing his friendship with them. Obama refused to do so.

Despite his friendship with Bannon, Obama's relations with the gay community have not always gone smoothly. His inclusion of anti-gay gospel singer Donnie McClurkin in a concert tour in South Carolina in October 2007 led to friction with gay rights activists, a dispute that Bannon and Quest chose not to comment on in public.

Now that Obama is one of the Democratic frontrunners, the issue of Race Bannon is once again receiving attention, as supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton drop hints that Obama's close ties with the controversial former government agent may cost him support in the general election in November. Obama supporters, in their turn, have been accusing the Clinton campaign of engaging in gay-bashing. If sparring between the two campaigns degenerates into open warfare, the Race Bannon issue may wreck the best chance Democrats have had in a generation of attaining a clear electoral mandate for a progressive agenda.

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