Senator Susan Collins ignored thousands of letters delivered to her office beseeching her to allow gays in the military, and polls suggesting that as many as 79 percent of Americans believe gays should be able to serve openly in the armed forces.
WHY THE CHANGE OF HEART? Senator
Collins is playing politics.
And though her office was barely cajoled into issuing a bland two-sentence statement for a Phoenix story three months ago (see “Ducking the Question,” by Tony Giampetruzzi, May 11), she’s starting to sing with the choir now, crediting a gay retired admiral from Maine who recently sat down with her to tell her his thoughts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law that requires gays to camouflage their personal lives if they want to keep serving (and to avoid being “outed” by comrades with personal beefs).
At a hearing last week leading up to the Senate confirmation vote on whether Admiral Michael Mullen should be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a single question from Collins signaled that her thinking had changed, prefaced with the admission that the unnamed gay admiral “urged [her] to urge [Mullen] to reexamine” DADT.
“Admiral Mullen, this morning you described our troops as being strained and stretched. And this is a concern that I share and that I think every member of this panel shares. We’ve seen longer deployments, more waivers granted to recruits with criminal records. We’ve actually seen an extension of the age limit for recruits. We’ve also experienced considerable difficulty in filling specialty positions such as for linguists, which are obviously very important in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Collins, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Press reports have said that more than 50 Arabic linguists have been discharged from our armed forces since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy was instituted,” she continued. “In addition to the loss of translators, the estimates are that there were more than 11,000 other service members that have been separated since ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was instituted by Congress back in the early ’90s. In your view, should we reevaluate this policy?”
Mullen’s stammered answer saying he supported the policy and wants Congress to make its own decisions didn’t amount to much; her question caused the most reaction.
A source close to Collins tells the Phoenix she is likely to become the lead Republican senator backing the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would reverse DADT and create a non-discrimination policy for the military. The bill is picking up sponsors in the House, and activists have long hoped Collins would join them to take the debate to the Senate.
“We hope that she will now be a part of the effort to topple the law and put a non-discrimination law in its place, particularly if she takes a leadership role in the Senate,” says Steve Ralls, spokesman for the SLDN, a group advocating for the repeal of DADT.
“Currently, we don’t know if we have the votes to be victorious in the Senate, but Collins could be very instrumental in educating people in her own party. Her support could move this forward by leaps and bounds,” says Ralls. So could poll numbers: A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows 79 percent of Americans favor allowing gays to serve openly; only 18 percent are opposed. Moreover, Republicans now tilt 49 percent to 42 percent in favor of repeal, according to a June survey by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.
Why did Collins shift now? She is up for reelection in 2008, and her opponent’s camp sees that as the reason.
“An original co-sponsor of legislation to lift the ban, [US Representative] Tom Allen has been a consistent supporter of equality and an opponent of the flawed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” says Valerie Martin, campaign manager for Allen, who is challenging Collins. “It seems as though a tough election-year challenge may be part of Susan Collins’s potential change of heart.”
Perhaps she is playing politics, but those champing at the bit to repeal DADT may just consider the ranking Republican a better ally in the war against the policy than a senator-wannabe who has opposed the law from the very beginning.