The Meaning of Karen Burstein's Defeat

Karen Burstein lost last month's race for attorney general because she is a lesbian. End of conversation. Pundits and political analysts need look no further. That's the only way I can make sense of this no brainer of a contest.

I covered the AG's race for one of the Journalism School's newspapers. I talked to her campaign advisors. I watched the polls. I followed her on the campaign trail. I was there on election night when her four-point lead at the beginning of the evening slowly melted away, until her stunned constituents began to realize that homophobia still garners votes in America.

I have no doubt that in a race so close--the last numbers I saw had Burstein losing by three percentage points--the issue of sexuality tipped the scales. Burstein outclassed her opponent, conservative Republican Dennis Vacco. The former Family Court judge has served the public for 21 years in a variety of capacities. Vacco, on the other hand, has done only one thing for 16 years: prosecute. And not very successfully. USA Today rated him one of the worst U.S. prosecutors in the country.

What's more, Burstein ran a campaign that tried to focus on the issues--support of reproductive rights, of enforcing stiffer environmental and domestic violence laws, and of her opposition to the death penalty. Vacco, in contrast, talked nonsense.

But when Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari said an "admitted lesbian"--whatever that is--was not fit to be AG, the race's substance fell to the wayside. As the polls showed Vacco closing in on Burstein, the former prosecutor continued to bring up Burstein's sexual orientation and her "lesbian agenda." This, despite his claims that he did not want to make her sexual orientation a campaign issue.

The media didn't help by repeatedly covering an irrelevant issue. Sure, sex of any kind sells papers. But, in the end, such coverage only damages the political process. Moreover, it does the profession of journalism a disservice. We undermine our credibility when we revert to thinly-veiled tabloidism.

The election demonstrated that race relations have come farther along than relations between gays and straights. Voters broke away from a Republican ticket to elect African American Carl McCall for state comptroller. I'm heartened to see that the public can make such a choice. But I think it shows how far gays and lesbians have to go to gain basic acceptance and respect for who we are, regardless of our sexual orientation.

That Burstein is a lesbian should never have been an issue in this campaign. As she said to her teary-eyed constituents the night she was defeated, "Not for myself, but for you, I'm sorry."

- Douglas Robson
School of Journalism '95

Community News -- December/January 1994 -- Volume 2, Number 4