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President Biden oks change to filibuster for voting rights

Biden and the Vice-President Kamala Harris address the urgent need to pass legislation to protect the constitutional right to vote

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President Biden and Vice President Harris deliver voting rights speech in Atlanta via NBC News YouTube

ATLANTA – President Biden, after paying tribute to civil rights pioneer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by leaving a wreath on his grave, brought the strength of his presidency to bear in a speech Tuesday in an effort to reform U.S. Senate rules to enact voting rights legislation.

“I’m making it clear, to protect our democracy, I support changing Senate rules whichever way they need to changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking basic voting rights,” Biden said.

Biden has indicated before he supports changes to longstanding rules the Senate requiring 60 votes to end a filibuster and proceed with debate on legislation, but the speech marks an elevation of viewpoint in a more formal way and increases the pressure on fellow Democrats like Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), who oppose such a change.

Based on his words, Biden’s position on filibuster reform appears limited to voting rights legislation, which like so much other legislation has passed in the House and has stalled out in the Senate. The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the White House seeking comment on why, if Biden supports changing the filibuster for voting rights, why hasn’t he made the case for other issues, such as police reform or LGBTQ civil rights.

A major reason cited by Biden to bring the force of his presidency down on this issue: The attack on U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 instigated by President Trump, who falsely claimed he won the 2020 election against Biden.

Biden conjured images of the long road in the civil rights journey in the United States and a “violet riot” at the Capitol that Biden said undermined the process.

The recently enacted voter law in Georgia, which makes mail-in voting illegal, limits hours and locations for ballot drop boxes and bars the delivery of food and water to persons waiting in line to vote, was another major focus for Biden, who pointed out Republican lawmakers in Georgia put it in place after he won the state in 2020 and Trump pressured officials there to find more votes for him.

As a result, Biden said the “threat to democracy is so grave” he supports changes to the filibuster, which came about in use in the Senate from senators seeking to block civili rights legislation.

“If that bare minimum is blocked, we have no choice but change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this,” Biden said.

Biden identified two bills in his speech: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which seeks to rectify a U.S. Supreme Court decision undermining the Voting Rights Act and the Freedom of the Vote Act, which would dramatically reform voting process, including the expansion of voting by mail and early voting.

Joining Biden in Atlanta in favor of changing rules to advance voting rights was Vice President Kamala Harris, who said “nowhere — nowhere — does the Constitution give a minority the right to unilaterally block legislation.”

“Over the past few years, we have seen so many anti-voter laws, that there is a danger of becoming accustomed to these laws, a danger of adjusting to these laws as though they are normal, a danger of becoming complacent, complicit,” Harris said. “Anti-voter laws are not new in our nation, but we must not be deceived into thinking they are normal.”

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President Biden and Vice President Harris deliver voting rights speech in Atlanta: 

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Full text of the president’s remarks:

In our lives and the lives of our nation — the life of our nation, there are moments so stark that they divide all that came before from everything that followed.  They stop time.  They rip away the trivial from the essential.  And they force us to confront hard truths about ourselves, about our institutions, and about our democracy.

In the words of Scripture, they remind us to “hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the gate.”

Last week, [Vice] President Harris and I stood in the United States Capitol to observe one of those “before and after” moments in American history: January 6th insurrection on the citadel of our democracy.

Today, we come to Atlanta — the cradle of civil rights — to make clear what must come after that dreadful day when a dagger was literally held at the throat of American democracy.

We stand on the grounds that connect Clark Atlanta — Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and near Spelman College — the home of generations of advocates, activists, educators and preachers; young people, just like the students here, who have done so much to build a better America. 

We visited the sacred Ebenezer Baptist Church and paused to prayed at the crypt of Dr. and Mrs. King, and spent time with their family.  And here in the district — as was pointed out — represented and reflected the life of beloved friend, John Lewis.

In their lifetimes, time stopped when a bomb blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and murdered four little girls.

They [Time] stopped when John and many others seeking justice were beaten and bloodied while crossing the bridge at Selma named after the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

They stopped — time stopped, and they forced the country to confront the hard truths and to act — to act to keep the promise of America alive: the promise that holds that we’re all created equal but, more importantly, deserve to be treated equally.  And from those moments of darkness and despair came light and hope.

Democrats, Republicans, and independents worked to pass the historic Civil Rights Act and the voting rights legislation.  And each successive generation continued that ongoing work.

But then the violent mob of January 6th, 2021, empowered and encouraged by a defeated former president, sought to win through violence what he had lost at the ballot box, to impose the will of the mob, to overturn a free and fair election, and, for the first time — the first time in American history, they — to stop the peaceful transfer of power.

They failed.  They failed.  (Applause.)  But democracy’s — but democracy’s visi- — victory was not certain, nor is democracy’s future.

That’s why we’re here today to stand against the forces in America that value power over principle, forces that attempted a coup — a coup against the legally expressed will of the American people — by sowing doubt, inventing charges of fraud, and seeking to steal the 2020 election from the people.

They want chaos to reign.  We want the people to rule. 

But let me be clear: This is not about me or Vice President Harris or our party; it’s about all of us.  It’s about the people.  It’s about America.

Hear me plainly: The battle for the soul of America is not over.  We must stand strong and stand together to make sure January 6th marks not the end of democracy but the beginning of a renaissance of our democracy. 

You know, for the right to vote and to have that vote counted is democracy’s threshold liberty.  Without it, nothing is possible, but with it, anything is possible.

But while the denial of fair and free elections is un-democratic, it is not unprecedented.

Black Americans were denied full citizenship and voting rights until 1965.  Women were denied the right to vote until just 100 years ago.  The United States Supreme Court, in recent years, has weakened the Voting Rights Act.  And now the defeated former president and his supporters use the Big Lie about the 2020 election to fuel torrent and torment and anti-voting laws — new laws designed to suppress your vote, to subvert our elections.

Here in Georgia, for years, you’ve done the hard work of democracy: registering voters, educating voters, getting voters to the polls.  You’ve built a broad coalition of voters: Black, white, Latino, Asian American, urban, suburban, rural, working class, and middle class. 

And it’s worked: You’ve changed the state by bringing more people, legally, to the polls.  That’s how you won the historic elections of Senator Raphael Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff. 

You did it — you did it the right way, the democratic way.

And what’s been the reaction of Republicans in Georgia?  Choose the wrong way, the undemocratic way.  To them, too many people voting in a democracy is a problem.  So they’re putting up obstacles.

For example, voting by mail is a safe and convenient way to get more people to vote, so they’re making it harder for you to vote by mail. 

The same way, I might add, in the 2020 Election, President Trump voted from behind the desk in the White House — in Florida. 

Dropping your ballots off to secure drop boxes — it’s safe, it’s convenient, and you get more people to vote.  So they’re limiting the number of drop boxes and the hours you can use them. 

Taking away the options has a predictable effect: longer lines at the polls, lines that can last for hours.  You’ve seen it with your own eyes.  People get tired and they get hungry.

When the Bible teaches us to feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, the new Georgia law actually makes it illegal — think of this — I mean, it’s 2020, and now ’22, going into that election — it makes it illegal to bring your neighbors, your fellow voters food or water while they wait in line to vote.  What in the hell — heck are we talking about?

I mean, think about it.  (Applause.)  That’s not America.  That’s what it looks like when they suppress the right to vote. 

And here’s how they plan to subvert the election: The Georgia Republican Party, the state legislature has now given itself the power to make it easier for partisan actors — their cronies — to remove local election officials. 

Think about that.  What happened in the last election?  The former president and allies pursued, threatened, and intimidated state and local election officials.

Election workers — ordinary citizens — were subject to death threats, menacing phone calls, people stalking them in their homes.

Remember what the defeated former president said to the highest-ranking election official — a Republican — in this state?  He said, quote, “I just want to find 11,780 votes.” 

Pray God. He didn’t say that part. 

He didn’t say, “Count the votes.”  He said, “find votes” that he needed to win.

He failed because of the courageous officials — Democrats, Republicans — who did their duty and upheld the law. 

But with this new law in Georgia, his loyal- — his loyalists will be placed in charge of state elections. What is that going to mean?  Well, the chances for chaos and subversion are even greater as partisans seek the result they want — no matter what the voters have said, no matter what the count.  The votes of nearly 5 million Georgians will be up for grabs if that law holds.

It’s not just here in Georgia.  Last year alone, 19 states not proposed but enacted 34 laws attacking voting rights.  There were nearly 400 additional bills Republican members of state legislatures tried to pass.  And now, Republican legislators in several states have already announced plans to escalate the onslaught this year.

Their endgame?  To turn the will of the voters into a mere suggestion — something states can respect or ignore.

Jim Crow 2.0 is about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion.  It’s no longer about who gets to vote; it’s about making it harder to vote.  It’s about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all.

It’s not hyperbole; this is a fact. 

Look, this matters to all of us.  The goal of the former president and his allies is to disenfranchise anyone who votes against them.  Simple as that.  The facts won’t matter; your vote won’t matter.  They’ll just decide what they want and then do it.

That’s the kind of power you see in totalitarian states, not in democracies. 

We must be vigilant.

And the world is watching.  I know the majority of the world leaders — the good and the bad ones, adversaries and allies alike.  They’re watching American democracy and seeing whether we can meet this moment.  And that’s not hyperbole.

When I showed up at the G7 with seven other world leaders — there were a total of nine present — Vice President Harris and I have spent our careers doing this work — I said, “America is back.”  And the response was, “For how long?”  “For how long?” 

As someone who’s worked in foreign policy my whole life, I never thought I would ever hear our allies say something like that.

Over the past year, we’ve directed federal agencies to promote access to voting, led by the Vice President.  We’ve appointed top civil rights advocates to help the U.S. Department of Justice, which has doubled its voting rights enforcement staff.

And today, we call on Congress to get done what history will judge: Pass the Freedom to Vote Act.  Pass it now — which would prevent voter suppression so that here in Georgia there’s full access to voting by mail, there are enough drop boxes during enough hours so that you can bring food and water as well to people waiting in line. 

The Freedom to Vote Act takes on election subversion to protect nonpartisan electors [election] officials, who are doing their job, from intimidation and interference.

It would get dark money out of politics, create fairer district maps and ending partisan gerrymandering. 

Look, it’s also time to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. 

I’ve been having these quiet conversations with the members of Congress for the last two months.  I’m tired of being quiet! 

Folks, it’ll restore the strength of the Voting Rights Act of ’65 — the one President Johnson signed after John Lewis was beaten, nearly killed on Bloody Sunday, only to have the Supreme Court weaken it multiple times over the past decade.

Restoring the Voting Rights Act would mean the Justice Department can stop discriminatory laws before they go into effect — before they go into effect.  
The Vice President and I have supported voting rights bills since day one of this administration.  But each and every time, Senate Republicans have blocked the way.  Republicans oppose even debating the issue.  You hear me?

I’ve been around the Senate a long time.  I was Vice President for eight years.  I’ve never seen a circumstance where not one single Republican has a voice that’s ready to speak for justice now.

When I was a senator, including when I headed up the Judiciary Committee, I helped reauthorize the Voting [Rights] Act three times.  We held hearings.  We debated.  We voted.  I was able to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 years.

In 2006, the Voting Rights Act passed 390 to 33 in
the House of Representatives and 98 to 0 in the Senate with votes from 16 current sitting Republicans in this United States Senate.  Sixteen of them voted to extend it.

The last year I was chairman, as some of my friends sitting down here will tell you, Strom Thurmond voted to extend the Voting Rights Act.  Strom Thurmond.

But, folks, then it was signed into law, the last time, by President George W. Bush.

You know, when we got voting rights extended in the 1980s, as I’ve said, even Thurmond supported it.  Think about that.  The man who led the longest filibu- — one of the longest filibusters in history in the United States Senate in 1957 against the Voting Rights Act [Civil Rights Act].  The man who led and sided with the old Southern Bulls in the United States Senate to perpetuate segregation in this nation.  Even Strom Thurmond came to support voting rights.

But Republicans today can’t and won’t.  Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America’s right to vote.  Not one.  Not one.

We have 50-50 in the United States Senate.  That means we have 51 presidents.  (Laughter.)  You all think I’m kidding. 

I’ve been pretty good at working with senators my whole career.  But, man, when you got 51 presidents, it gets harder.  Any one can change the outcome.

Sadly, the United States Senate — designed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body — has been rendered a shell of its former self.  It gives me no satisfaction in saying that, as an institutionalist, as a man who was honored to serve in the Senate.

But as an institutionalist, I believe that the threat to
our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote. 

Let the majority prevail.  And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.

You know, last year, if I’m not mistaken, the filibuster was used 154 times.  The filibuster has been used to generate compromise in the past and promote some bipartisanship.  But it’s also been used to obstruct — including and especially obstruct civil rights and voting rights.

And when it was used, senators traditionally used to have to stand and speak at their desks for however long it took, and sometimes it took hours.  And when they sat down, if no one immediately stood up, anyone could call for a vote or the debate ended.

But that doesn’t happen today.  Senators no longer even have to speak one word.  The filibuster is not used by Republicans to bring the Senate together but to pull it further apart.

The filibuster has been weaponized and abused.

While the state legislatures’ assault on voting rights is simple — all you need in your House and Senate is a pure majority — in the United States Senate, it takes a supermajority: 60 votes, even to get a vote — instead of 50 — to protect the right to vote.

State legislatures can pass anti-voting laws with simple majorities.  If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority. 

Today I’m making it clear: To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed — (applause) — to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights. 

When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, the majority should rule in the United States Senate.  

I make this announcement with careful deliberation, recognizing the fundamental right to vote is the right from which all other rights flow.

And I make it with an appeal to my Republican colleagues, to those Republicans who believe in the rule of law: Restore the bipartisan tradition of voting rights. 

The people who restored it, who abided by it in the past were Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush.  They all supported the Voting Rights Act.

Don’t let the Republican Party morph into something else.  Restore the institution of the Senate the way it was designed to be.

Senate rules were just changed to raise the debt ceiling so we wouldn’t renege on our debt for the first time in our history and prevent an economic crisis.  That was done by a simple majority.

As Senator Warnock said a few weeks ago in a powerful speech: If we change the rules to protect the full faith and credit of the United States, we should be able to change the rules to protect the heart and soul of our democracy.  He was right.

In the days that followed John Lewis’s death, there was an outpouring of praise and support across the political spectrum.

But as we stand here today, it isn’t enough just to praise his memory.  We must translate eulogy into action.  We need to follow John Lewis’s footsteps.  We need to support the bill in his name.

Just a few days ago, we talked about — up in the Congress and in the White House — the event coming up shortly to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.  And Americans of all stripes will praise him for the content of his character.

But as Dr. King’s family said before, it’s not enough to praise their father.  They even said: On this holiday, don’t celebrate his birthday unless you’re willing to support what he lived for and what he died for.  The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation’s history.

We will choose — the issue is: Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadows, justice over injustice? 

I know where I stand.  I will not yield.  I will not flinch.  I will defend the right to vote, our democracy against all enemies — foreign and, yes, domestic. 

And the question is: Where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?  Every senator — Democrat, Republican, and independent — will have to declare where they stand, not just for the moment, but for the ages.

Will you stand against voter suppression?  Yes or no?  That’s the question they’ll answer.  Will you stand against election subversion?  Yes or no?  Will you stand for democracy?  Yes or no?

And here’s one thing every senator and every American should remember: History has never been kind to those who have sided with voter suppression over voters’ rights.  And it will be even less kind for those who side with election subversion.

So, I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered? 

At consequential moments in history, they present a choice: Do you want to be the si- — on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?  Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor?  Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?

This is the moment to decide to defend our elections, to defend our democracy. 

And if you do that, you will not be alone.  That’s because the struggle to protect voting rights has never been borne by one group alone.

We saw Freedom Riders of every race.  Leaders of every faith marching arm in arm.  And, yes, Democrats and Republicans in Congress of the United States and in the presidency.

I did not live the struggle of Douglass, Tubman, King, Lewis, Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, and countless others — known and unknown.

I did not walk in the shoes of generations of students who walked these grounds.  But I walked other grounds.  Because I’m so damn old, I was there as well. 

You think I’m kidding, man. It seems like yesterday the first time I got arrested.  Anyway —

But their struggles here — they were the ones that opened my eyes as a high school student in the late — in the late ’50s and early ’60s.  They got me more engaged in the work of my life.

And what we’re talking about today is rooted in the very idea of America — the idea that Annell Ponder, who graduated from Clark Atlanta, captured in a single word.  She was a teacher and librarian who was also an unyielding champion of voting rights.

In 1963 — when I was just starting college at university — after registering voters in Mississippi, she was pulled off a bus, arrested, and jailed, where she was brutally beaten.

In her cell, next to her, was Fannie Lou Hamer, who described the beating this way, and I quote: “I could hear the sounds of [the] licks and [the] horrible screams…They beat her, I don’t know [for] how long.  And after a while, she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.”

Annell Ponder’s friends visited her the next day.  Her face was badly swollen.  She could hardly talk.

But she managed to whi- — whisper one word: “Freedom.”  “Freedom” — the only word she whispered.

After nearly 250 years since our founding, that singular idea still echoes.  But it’s up to all of us to make sure it never fades, especially the students here — your generation that just started voting — as there are those who are trying to take away that vi- — vote you just started to be able to exercise. 

But the giants we honor today were your age when they made clear who we must be as a nation.  Not a joke.  Think about it.  In the early ’60s, they were sitting where you’re sitting.  They were you.  And like them, you give me much hope for the future.

Before and after in our lives — and in the life of the nation — democracy is who we are, who we must be — now and forever.  So, let’s stand in this breach together.  Let’s love good, establish justice in the gate. 

And remember, as I said, there is one — this is one of those defining moments in American history: Each of those who vote will be remembered by class after class, in the ’50s and ’60s — the 2050s and ’60s.  Each one of the members of the Senate is going to be judged by history on where they stood before the vote and where they stood after the vote. 

There’s no escape.  So, let’s get back to work. 

As my fath- — my grandfather Finnegan used to say every time I walked out the door in Scranton, he’d say, “Joey, keep the faith.”  Then he’d say, “No, Joey, spread it.” 

Let’s spread the faith and get this done. 

May God bless you all.  And may God protect the sacred right to vote. Thank you.  I mean it.  Let’s go get this done.  Thank you. 

Politics

Justice Dept. eyes criminal probe of Santos’ campaign finances

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, along with the rest of Republican leadership in the chamber, has addressed the controversies minimally

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(Screenshot/CBS News)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to hold off on law enforcement activity over Republican Rep. George Santos (Ny.) as federal prosecutors conduct their own criminal probe into the congressman’s campaign finances.

The news, first reported Friday by the Washington Post, was confirmed Saturday by The Blade via a Justice Department source familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak with the press.

The attorney who filed the FEC complaint against Santos previously told The Blade that the agency would yield to the Justice Department if prosecutors initiate a criminal probe—indicating that in Washington the matter would be overseen by the Department’s Public Integrity Section. 

The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James are also looking into Santos’s financial conduct, while the congressman has simultaneously been enmeshed in controversies over his compulsive lying, having fabricated virtually every part of his life and identity. 

As of this publication, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office has not responded to a request seeking comment. McCarthy, along with the rest of Republican leadership in the chamber, have addressed the controversies only minimally, telling reporters they have no plans to ask Santos to step down until or unless criminal proceedings against him are underway.

Santos voted for McCarthy’s bid for speakership in each of the 15 ballots that were required to unite the House GOP conference behind him due to the objections of a couple dozen ultra-conservative members who were able to delay the vote and extract painful concessions because of the party’s narrow control of the House majority.

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Ruben Gallego announces run for Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate seat

Sinema has often earned the ire of many of her Democratic colleagues for stymying progressive legislation- refusing to abandon the filibuster

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona announced plans to run for the Senate in 2024, setting up a possible three-way race if newly declared Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema decides to seek reelection for her seat representing the Grand Canyon State next year.

Gallego disclosed his forthcoming senatorial bid on Monday, sharing a video on Twitter in which the congressman accused Sinema of breaking her promises to Arizonans in favor of advancing the interests of multinational pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions.

A spokesperson for Sinema’s office declined to comment. On Friday, Sinema told Arizona Radio Station KTAR: “I’m not really thinking or talking about the election right now, although others are,” adding, I’m staying focused on the work.”

If elected, Gallego, whose announcement video was recorded in English and Spanish, would become Arizona’s first Latino senator.

Sinema became the first bisexual member and, after Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the second LGBTQ woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in 2012 and 2018, respectively.

Last year, she was widely credited for her role in the Senate’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, hailed as the most significant pro-LGBTQ legislative achievement since the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

However, since her election to the Senate, Sinema has often earned the ire of many of her Democratic colleagues for stymying progressive legislation by refusing to abandon the filibuster and tacking to the right on fiscal issues.

The Arizona Democratic Party executive board voted to censure Sinema last January for voting with Republicans to preserve the filibuster at the expense of a voting rights bill.

On Dec. 9, Sinema announced her decision to switch her party affiliation from Democrat to Independent, pledging not to caucus with Republicans and promising that “Nothing will change about my values or my behavior.”

Sinema has also come under fire during her tenure in the Senate for taking positions seen as favorable to the drug industry and Wall Street, seemingly in exchange for financial backing from these and other affiliated interests.

For instance, in 2021 The Guardian reported that “In the current Congress, Big Pharma appears to have zeroed in on Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat from Arizona, as one of their lead obstructionists to help kill or gut the Democrats’ drug pricing plan. In the 2020 election cycle, pharmaceutical political action committees suddenly funneled more money to her than they did the whole six years she served in the US House.”

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ACLU: 120 new anti-LGBTQ bills in the first few weeks of 2023

“Across the country, trans people & families are gearing up to fight back- prevent every one of these bills from becoming law”

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Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. (Screenshot/YouTube)

NEW YORK – Lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 120 anti-LGBTQ bills so far this year, according to a press release issued Thursday by the ACLU, America’s largest and best-known litigation and lobbying group for individual rights and civil liberties.

In a press release announcing the findings, the ACLU introduced a digital dashboard, which summarizes the proposed anti-LGBTQ policies, organizes the bills by category, and tracks their progress through state legislatures.

“These bills represented a coordinated effort to deny transgender people our freedom, our safety, and our dignity,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project.

“Across the country, trans people and our families are gearing up to fight back and prevent every one of these bills from becoming law,” he said in the press release.

Last year, the ACLU reports there were a record breaking 278 bills targeting LGBTQ people, of which 20 have become law. The group’s litigation team has fought against “bills across the country restricting access to gender-affirming health care, barring trans people from updating identity documents, and denying transgender students equal access to school facilities and activities, as well as defending inclusive policies from political and legal attacks.”

Additionally, the ACLU has brought lawsuits challenging book bans that target materials with LGBTQ characters or themes and represented parties in litigation over a Texas law that criminalizes parents who facilitate their trans children’s access to guideline directed, medically necessary healthcare treatments and procedures.

The number of new anti-LGBTQ legislative proposals seen in the first few weeks of 2023 is especially remarkable considering that some state legislatures have not yet begun filing new bills.

In a Washington Blade article published Wednesday, activist and legislative researcher Erin Reed said that in addition to the fact that lawmakers are now on track to eclipse last year’s record number of anti-LGBTQ bills, the proposals introduced so far this year have tended to be more extreme and cruel than in years past.

The ACLU has categorized them in seven primary focus areas: healthcare access, schools and education, free speech and expression, access to accurate IDs, Weakening Civil Rights Laws, Public Accommodations, and Other Anti-LGBTQ Bills.

The ACLU’s press release describes each of these types of legislative proposals:

  • Health Care Access
    • Lawmakers are targeting access to medically-necessary health care for transgender people. Many of these bills ban affirming care for trans youth, and can even create criminal penalties for providing this care. 35 bills target health care access for transgender people.
  • Schools & Education
    • State lawmakers are trying to prevent trans students from participating in school activities like sports, force teachers to out students, and censor in-school discussions of LGBTQ people and issues. 58 bills target LGBTQ rights in schools and educational settings.
  • Free Speech & Expression
    • Despite the safeguards of the First Amendment’s right to free expression, politicians are fighting to restrict how and when LGBTQ people can be themselves, limiting access to books about them and trying to ban or censor performances like drag shows. 19 bills target freedom of speech and expression for LGBTQ people.
  • Access to Accurate IDs
    • These bills attempt to limit the ability to update gender information on IDs and records, such as birth certificates and driver’s licenses. Four bills target the right to accurate identity documents for transgender people.
  • Weakening Civil Rights Laws
    • These bills attempt to undermine and weaken nondiscrimination laws by allowing employers, businesses, and even hospitals to turn away LGBTQ people or refuse them equal treatment. Seven bills seek to weaken existing civil rights laws.
  • Public Accommodations
    • These bills prohibit transgender people from using facilities like public restrooms and locker rooms.
  • Other Anti-LGBTQ Bills
    • These bills don’t quite fit in any of the other categories, but nonetheless target the rights of LGBTQ people. Examples include restrictions on marriage and bills preempting local nondiscrimination protections. Five bills target LGBTQ people and rights, including proposed amendments to define transgender people out of existence.
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Politics

Reports indicate George Santos was a drag queen in Brazil

Santos’ alleged financial malfeasance & potential violations of campaign finance laws have triggered investigations

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New York Congressman George Santos (Screenshot/YouTube)

WASHINGTON — Embattled U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was a drag performer in his native Brazil about 15 years ago, according to a Reuters article published on Wednesday that quoted two former acquaintances. 

Despite the online circulation of photos appearing to show the congressman dressed in drag, Santos denied the report on Thursday. 

“The most recent obsession from the media claiming that I am a drag queen or ‘performed’ as a drag queen is categorically false,” tweeted the New York Republican. “The media continues to make outrageous claims about my life while I am working to deliver results.” 

“I will not be distracted nor fazed by this,” added Santos.

Bruna Benevides of Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transsexuais (National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals), a Brazilian transgender rights group known by the acronym ANTRA, in a Jan. 1 tweet in response to a New York Times story about Santos said his drag name was Kitara Ravache.

Benevides has yet to respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment. A source in Rio de Janeiro said she had “never heard” that Santos was a drag queen when he lived in Brazil. 

Steven Grattan, a Reuters reporter in São Paulo, on Thursday posted to his Twitter page a video that appears to show Santos in drag in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Niterói.

Santos has taken a hard-right stance on social issues, keeping company with his most extreme Republican colleagues who have increasingly targeted organizers of all-ages drag events with false accusations that performers are abusing or exploiting children.

In contrast with most House Republicans and the entirety of Republican leadership, these lawmakers have not distanced themselves from Santos amid the scandals that have unfolded over his apparent financial improprieties and compulsive lying about his life, identity, and career.

Several GOP U.S. House members, joined last week by more than a dozen Republican elected officials serving in or near Santos’s 3rd Congressional District in New York, have demanded Santos’s immediate resignation.

The congressman’s alleged financial malfeasance and potential violations of campaign finance laws have triggered investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. House Ethics Committee, the Federal Election Commission, and the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James, while Brazilian authorities have revived fraud charges that were brought against him in 2008 over a stolen checkbook. 

Also on Wednesday, two military veterans told CNN Santos had set up a GoFundMe to help finance lifesaving surgery for their pitt bull and then absconded with the money.

GoFundMe issued a statement to CNN on the company’s decision to remove the fundraiser from its platform:

“When we received a report of an issue with this fundraiser in late 2016, our trust and safety team sought proof of the delivery of funds from the organizer. The organizer failed to respond, which led to the fundraiser being removed and the email associated with that account prohibited from further use on our platform. GoFundMe has a zero tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing.”

The men said Santos stopped responding to their messages requesting access to the crowdsourced funds. They never received the money, and once the dog’s cancer reached an advanced stage they had to panhandle to afford to euthanize her.

Santos denied the report in a statement to CNN.

Michael K. Lavers contributed to this story

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Politics

Latino Leaders Network honors gay San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria

Last year’s honorees were Albuquerque, New Mexico Mayor Tim Keller and San Antonio, Texas Mayor Ron Nirenberg

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San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria recieves the Antonio Villaraigosa Leadership Award at the Latino Leaders Network's Tribute to Mayors event on Jan. 18. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Openly gay San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria became the latest recipient of the Latino Leaders Network’s Antonio Villaraigosa Leadership Award during the organization’s Tribute to Mayors on Wednesday night.

The biannual event, which was held at the St. Regis hotel in Washington, D.C., was attended by more than 80 mayors – including Eric Adams of New York and Francis Suarez of Miami, who serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors – along with other elected representatives like Rhode Island Lieutenant Gov. Sabina Matos.

Also in attendance were high profile government officials including Julie Chavez Rodriguez, senior advisor to the President and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as Esteban Moctezuma and Batbayar Ulziidelger, ambassadors of Mexico and Mongolia to the U.S.

Upon receiving the award, Gloria expressed gratitude for the “open door policy” with which the Biden-Harris administration has welcomed input from the nation’s mayors, particularly with respect to issues concerning immigration. He said San Diego is a better and more prosperous city by virtue of its close proximity to the southern border.

Gloria also remarked on how “far we’ve come as a community,” noting his identity as an openly gay man with Puerto Rican, Filipino, Native American, and Dutch heritage who learned from his parents – who worked as a gardener and hotel maid – that one should “leave things better than you found them.”

Introducing Gloria was the award’s namesake, Villaraigosa, former Los Angeles mayor and California gubernatorial candidate, who said the latest honoree embodies the principle that, “when we break a glass ceiling and open up the door, we do that because we know we got there on the shoulders of others, and we say, ‘this door is open to all of us.'”

“When we celebrate mayors who bring us together and unite us at a time when the country is so divided, we should really celebrate,” Villaraigosa said.

The Latino Leadership Network presents the Antonio Villaraigosa Leadership Award to “a mayor from a city with a significant Latino population who has exhibited an outstanding commitment to bringing diverse communities together.”

Last year’s honorees were Albuquerque, New Mexico Mayor Tim Keller and San Antonio, Texas Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

Former Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa.
Tucson, Ariz. Mayor Regina Romero.
Mickey Ibarra, chairman of the Latino Leaders Network.
Lidia S. Martinez, board member of the Latino Leaders Network.
White House Senior Advisor Julie Chavez Rodriguez.
Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez.
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Politics

Matt Schlapp’s accuser files civil action alleging sexual battery

An influential figure in conservative politics, Schlapp serves as chair of the American Conservative Union

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Matt Schlapp at CPAC (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – The Republican staffer who went public early this month with allegations of sexual assault against high powered conservative activist Matt Schlapp filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday against Schlapp and his wife, Mercedes, for $9 million.

According to the complaint, the couple and “others associated with and acting in concert with them” were engaged in “dishonest efforts” to “discredit Mr. Doe,” thereby causing him to suffer “damages, including and without limitation embarrassment, humiliation, stress, and reputational harm.”

Mr. Doe told NBC on Jan. 5 that when he was working for Herschel Walker’s senatorial campaign last October, Schlapp fondled him while the two were headed back to their hotel from an Atlanta bar.

An influential figure in conservative politics, Schlapp serves as chair of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

An attorney representing the Schlapps, Charlie Spies, issued a statement Tuesday denying the allegations in the civil complaint.

The “Schlapp family is suffering unbearable pain and stress due to the false allegation from an anonymous individual,” the statement reads. “No family should ever go through this and the Schlapps and their legal team are assessing counter-lawsuit options.”

Before joining the corporate law firm Dickinson Wright, Spies served as election law counsel to the Republican National Committee and as chief financial officer and counsel to Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) 2008 presidential campaign.

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Quantity, cruelty of anti-LGBTQ state bills raise alarm bells

“We really need to support local LGBTQ organizations- lift them up as much as possible,” particularly those in conservative & rural states”

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

WASHINGTON – When the Washington Blade connected with activist and legislative researcher Erin Reed on Tuesday to discuss the new anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in statehouses across the country, it was just as the news of an especially hateful proposal came across her desk.

Senators in West Virginia had teed up an anti-trans law that would criminalize “displays” that “shall include, but not be limited to, any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances, or display to any minor.”

The move recalled anti-LGBTQ laws from the 1960s that criminalized the very existence of transgender and gender non-conforming persons as well as drag performers, while providing pretexts for police raids of LGBTQ establishments like the Stonewall Inn, Reed said.

For example, she said, many states once enforced dress codes that required people to wear at least three articles of clothing consistent with their sex assigned at birth.

Likewise, the West Virginia bill raises alarming questions about whether transgender parents and teachers in the state might be prosecuted, with a potential five-year prison sentence, said Reed, who is herself a transgender parent.

Additionally, the proposed legislation is “unconstitutionally vague,” written so broadly that it would presumably become illegal to screen the film “Mrs. Doubtfire” or perform certain Shakespearen plays for an audience of minors if the measure were to pass, Reed said.

Less than three weeks into 2023, state legislatures have introduced nearly as many anti-LGBTQ bills as were introduced in the entirety of last year – and qualitatively, many of these new bills are more hateful than anything we have seen in decades, Reed said.

“I see an increase in both the number and in the cruelty towards transgender people,” she said.

There are “new pieces of proposed legislation that go further than bills in 2021 and 2022,” such as by “banning gender affirming care through age 26 in Oklahoma,” and others that “target the drag community in ways that haven’t happened in 30 to 40 years.”

Fear and hate mongering over all-ages drag performances has been ratcheted up in the right-wing ecosystem, fueled by conservative media figures like Matt Walsh and Tucker Carlson, as well as social media accounts like Libs of TikTok and extremist militias, Reed said.

According to the ACLU, “As drag reality competitions and drag brunches become increasingly popular, backlash in the form of armed protests and intimidation of drag performers has followed.”

Consequently, Reed said, this year for the first time anti-LGBTQ legislation has included measures targeting drag performances – with, so far, a dozen new bills. And the concern is not just that many of these proposed laws are draconian, like Nebraska’s bill that would prohibit patrons younger than 21 from attending a drag show.

“Whenever I see those [laws] being proposed, I also see militant organizations storming in” to LGBTQ bars, schools, hospitals, and venues that host drag queen story hours, Reed said. “I see people trying to break into drag events and successfully doing so,” disrupting them with violence and intimidation, she said.

“What I read into [the impetus behind these laws] is these legislators want to change the uniform of the people doing the storming,” from militias comprised of far-right citizens to “people wearing badges.”

Making matters worse, Reed said, there are “lots of cases where drag events have asked for local protection and not received any protection whatsoever.”

Last month, organizers of a drag queen story hour-style event in Columbus, Ohio, had to cancel after they said police failed to work with them to protect participants from demonstrators affiliated with far-right groups like the violent neo-fascist Proud Boys. (Police dispute the organizers’ account of events.)

The ACLU notes that, “Amidst this wave of anti-drag legislation and violence, drag performers and host venues across the country are moving to higher security or cancel performances altogether.”

Looking at the slate of new statewide legislative proposals, many are a continuation of similar anti-trans themes that have emerged in recent years, but “we’re seeing scary attempts to escalate things,” Reed said.

For instance, bills that restrict or prohibit guideline-directed healthcare for transgender and gender non-conforming youth were introduced and passed in several states in 2021 and 2022, but new measures proposed this year would target adults as old as 26.

“It makes me wonder what their ultimate goal is,” Reed said. “To ban transitions entirely?”

Every mainstream medical organization with relevant clinical expertise recommends age-directed gender affirming care according to clinical practice guidelines that are supported by a bevy of research and updated regularly to ensure best practices.

Still, right-wing figures have demagogued the issue and characterized responsible medical care as “experimentation” and child abuse.

Reed noted there are some “new wrinkles” in anti-trans healthcare bans that have been proposed this year.

For instance, she said, Indiana proposed folding gender affirming care into practices that would be outlawed under a conversion therapy ban – thereby conflating supportive and medically necessary healthcare with an abusive, ineffective practice that has been rejected by mainstream science and medicine.

Across the board, Reed noted, there is an increasing reliance on executive authority. This was previewed toward the end of last year, she said, pointing to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s weaponization of the state medical board and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s weaponization of the Department of Family and Protective Services to, respectively, ban gender affirming care and prosecute parents for child abuse for facilitating their trans children’s access to gender affirming care.  

‘The fight is on the state level right now

Amid the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation, Reed emphasized the need for coordinated action by the U.S. Congress, the Biden-Harris White House, progressive and pro-equality legal actors, and state legislatures, as well as local and national LGBTQ groups.

She noted that pro-equality interests have focused significant time, attention, and money urging Congress to pass the Equality Act, which is commendable and necessary, while the courts can provide (and, often, have provided) a path toward effectuating pro-equality policy.

At the same time, Reed said, for the foreseeable future federal legislators are unlikely to find a path forward for any major bills impacting LGBTQ people, while relying on the judiciary – particularly with the U.S. Supreme Court as it is currently construed – is far from a safe bet.

By contrast, “at the state level, we’ve seen the GOP focus time and attention and money and efforts on changing state laws,” she said, adding, “it’s important that we do the same.”

Likewise, Reed said, “I also think we really need to support our local LGBT organizations and help lift them up as much as possible,” particularly those located in more conservative and rural states, which largely do not earn commensurate resources and support.

“In places like North Dakota and Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia, we need to help the people who live there,” Reed said, but also in blue states where significant progress toward LGBTQ equality has been made but there is still room for improvement. “Don’t neglect your own backyard.”

For instance, she said, the gay and trans panic defense is still legal in some progressive states.  

“One of the biggest problems for people in some of these states criminalizing [healthcare for trans people] is they don’t have resources to travel out of state,” Reed said, noting that POLITICO has reported on the plights of people who have been forced to flee states with anti-trans laws.

And while “We have to take care of those people,” Reed said, people should not be in a position where they must flee their home states. “We need federal action and federal protections,” she said.

Thankfully, there is some movement on pro-LGBTQ state bills. Reed said she has seen more this year compared to last year, which is “a bit promising.” She highlighted bills such as the proposal to protect gender affirming care in Maryland, access to bathrooms for trans youth in Minnesota, the ability to change information on birth certificates in West Virginia, and adoption by trans parents in Montana.

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Texts corroborate sexual assault allegations against Matt Schlapp

Schlapp has close ties to former president Donald Trump, in whose administration his wife served as communications director from 2017 to 2019

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American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Contemporaneous text messages shared with CNN appear to corroborate allegations of sexual assault against Republican activist Matt Schlapp, who chairs the organization that hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

In the messages, which were exchanged in October, a GOP strategist who was working for Herschel Walker’s senatorial campaign consulted a friend for guidance on how to proceed after he says he was groped by Schlapp in the car after an outing in a bar in Atlanta.

Schlapp addressed the allegations through an attorney who told CNN: “The attack is false and Mr. Schlapp denies any improper behavior.”

The Republican staffer texted his friend that Schlapp was “pissed I didn’t follow him to his hotel room.”

“I’m so sorry man,” the friend responded. “What a fucking creep.”

“I just don’t know how to say it to my superiors thst heir [sic] surrogate fondled my junk without my consent,” the staffer wrote.

Schlapp has close ties to former president Donald Trump, in whose administration his wife served as communications director from 2017 to 2019 and whose false claims about the 2020 presidential election he has parroted.

The sexual assault allegations were first reported by the Daily Beast. The group that organizes CPAC, the American Conservative Union, did not immediately return a request for comment.

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California Politics

Field of candidates to replace Feinstein in U.S. Senate grows

In an interview with Nicholas Wu, Politico’s Congressional Reporter, Lee said she officially announce “when it’s appropriate”

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California U. S. Representative Barbara Lee, (Upper Center) with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) (Upper Right ) & other Democrats during balloting for selection of the Speaker of the House. (Photo Credit: Rep. Barbara Lee, (D-CA)/Facebook)

WASHINGTON – A day after Orange County Congresswoman Katie Porter announced her bid to replace California’s octogenarian senior U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, sources close to California U. S. Representative Barbara Lee told Politico that Lee is likely to also mount a challenge for the seat.

On Wednesday Lee informed her colleagues in a closed-door Congressional Black Caucus meeting that she intends to run to two sources familiar with the situation Politico reported Thursday.

Asked later Wednesday about her plans, Lee said in a brief interview with Nicholas Wu, Politico’s Congressional Reporter and Politics reporter, she’d officially announce “when it’s appropriate.”

“Right now, in respect to [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein and the floods and what I’m doing, I’m doing my work. And we’ll let them know when I intend to go to the next step. But now’s the time not to talk about that,” she said.

Porter’s announcement and Lee’s potential run comes on the heels of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank-Hollywood) who had appeared on Los Angeles Fox 11 and told The Issue Is host Elex Michaelson that should Feinstein retire in 2024 he will seriously consider replacing her in a campaign.

Politico also noted that while she lacks the fundraising might of Porter and Schiff, Lee is a revered figure in the Oakland-anchored district she has represented for decades. Her deep Bay Area roots could be an asset given that both Porter and Schiff represent southern California districts.

Feinstein, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, is widely expected to retire instead of running for reelection in 2024. In recent years she has faced questions about her mental acuity an fitness for remaining in her Senate seat and over the past year has has stepped back from some official duties.

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Nassau County NY GOP demand Santos’s resignation

“He has no place in the Nassau County Republican Committee nor in elected office- We do not consider him one of our congresspeople”

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Nassau County GOP officials make an announcement about GOP Rep. George Santos (Screenshot/YouTube MSNBC)

WESTBURY, N.Y. — The Nassau County Republican Committee convened a press conference in New York on Wednesday to demand the immediate resignation of disgraced openly gay freshman GOP Rep. George Santos (Ny.).

“He has no place in the Nassau County Republican Committee nor in elected office,” said Joseph Cairo, chair of the county’s GOP political committee. “We do not consider him one of our congresspeople.”

“I join with you and my colleagues in saying Santos does not have the ability to serve in the House and should resign,” said Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-Ny.), addressing the audience virtually from Washington.

The comments were echoed by more than a dozen GOP elected officials who represent constituents in or near New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which is now represented by Santos and comprises much of Nassau County in Long Island along with a small portion of Queens.

Reporting over the past several weeks has revealed Santos had invented virtually every aspect of his biography and identity, while law enforcement agencies are looking into alleged financial malfeasance by the congressman and his campaign.

Cairo and other speakers noted the multiple investigations of Santos reportedly underway by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, and the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Santos’s office did not return requests for comment regarding Wednesday’s press conference. Shortly after the event, however, he told ABC News Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott that he would not resign.

Santos then published a brief statement on Twitter: “I was elected to serve the people of #NY03 not the party & politicians, I remain committed to doing that and regret to hear that local officials refuse to work with my office to deliver results to keep our community safe and lower the cost of living. I will NOT resign!”

About 150 protestors gathered around Santos’s in-district office on Sunday to demand his resignation, including Robert Zimmerman, his Democratic challenger in the 2022 midterm elections. 

On Monday, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center, filed a complaint against Santos and his campaign with the Federal Election Commission, while Democratic Reps. Ritchie Torres and Daniel Goldman of New York filed a complaint with the House Committee on Ethics Tuesday.

When House Republicans passed a rules package over the weekend that severely weakens the ability of the House Ethics Committee to investigate members of Congress, Santos called the move “fantastic.”

Several speakers on Wednesday admonished Santos for lying about his grandparents having survived The Holocaust, noting how hurtful that was for so many of his constituents who have personal and familial ties to the genocide.

Others lamented the ceaseless news coverage that has revealed more and more information about lies and misrepresentations Santos has made.

Hempstead, Ny Town Supervisor Don Clavin said, “You see a unified voice here. [Santos has] unified the county in their opposition to him. He’s a national joke, he’s an international joke, but this joke has got to go. Not tomorrow, not next week, today.”

“Our vetting process has to go much deeper,” Cairo said, adding that he was personally deceived by Santos, who claimed to have been a volleyball star at Baruch College – an institution where, The New York Times revealed several weeks ago, Santos was never enrolled.

Cairo said he has not spoken about Santos with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), “but all of our elected officials have spoken today and we’re calling for his resignation and we’ll pass that along to the Speaker.”

Charles Moran, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, America’s largest LGBT conservative group, shared a statement with The Washington Blade:

“We are closely following the evolving story on George Santos and are listening to our local Log Cabin membership, the GOP leadership in New York’s 3rd Congressional district, and ultimately, the voters themselves.

It has been widely reported that House GOP leadership will also be holding their own internal conversations about George’s continuing responsibilities in Congress, and we look forward to hearing their response.”

Nassau County GOP officials make an announcement about GOP Rep. George Santos:

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