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Axis of evil
Meet the new Republican senators. Five of them hope to make your worst nightmares come true.

WHEN THE NEW Senate storms Capitol Hill early next year, the narrow Republican majority of the past two years will disappear, to be replaced by a much wider Republican majority. Currently, the Senate comprises 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and an independent — Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, a former Republican who usually votes with the Democrats. Because of last week’s election, the Senate will soon seat 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and Jeffords.

Who are these people? Unlike the House, where Republican members lead lives of near-anonymous fealty dictated by Speaker Dennis Hastert and majority leader Tom DeLay, senators matter as individuals — not as just a voting bloc. There are moderate Republican senators, such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, of Maine; Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island; and Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania — who nearly got his head handed to him last week for daring to suggest that anti-choice judges might not pass muster. There are religious conservatives, such as Sam Brownback, of Kansas, and Orrin Hatch, of Utah. And there is Jim Bunning, of Kentucky, who’s in a class by himself: last week he was re-elected despite widespread reports that he has Alzheimer’s disease, and even though two of his supporters had sneeringly suggested that his Democratic opponent was gay.

Seven new Republican senators were elected last week. Two are unremarkable. Mel Martinez, of Florida, was George W. Bush’s first secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Despite a poor record on the environment, Martinez deserves some thanks from Democrats: he and the White House intimidated Congresswoman Katherine Harris (yes, that Katherine Harris) into not running for the Senate this year. In Georgia, Republican congressman Johnny Isakson will succeed Democratic senator Zell Miller, who’s retiring. Isakson — a moderate who’s pro-choice (except when he isn’t) — may well be more a voice of reason than Miller has been. That said, Isakson’s outburst earlier this year that Bush is "the best president the United States has ever had" was certainly embarrassing, if not nearly as embarrassing as Miller’s red-faced rant at the Republican National Convention.

What remain are five genuine specimens of right-wing Republicanism. Keep an eye on these guys. They’re dangerous.

1) Tom Coburn: Keeping us safe from condoms and the ‘gay agenda’

Fresh from helping to save Oklahoma from the scourge of teenage lesbianism, Tom Coburn arrives in Washington with perhaps the most bizarre set of right-wing credentials of anyone in the Republican Class of 2004. A former three-term congressman who was swept into office 10 years ago on the coattails of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, Coburn — who succeeds retiring Republican senator Don Nickles — is an obstetrician possessed of an obsessive fascination with other people’s sexuality.

In 2003, George W. Bush named Coburn to co-chair the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS. Coburn’s very first act was to speak out against the one preventative behavior (other than abstinence) that actually works. "I will challenge the national focus on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV," he said upon his appointment. Earlier, as a congressman, he had sought to force condom manufacturers to label their products as "ineffective" in slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

But that doesn’t begin to plumb the depths of Coburn’s so-called thinking. In his successful Senate campaign against Democratic congressman Brad Carson, Coburn called for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. That certainly gives new meaning to the term "pro-life." As a physician, Coburn himself performed abortions, although he says it was always to save the life of the woman. Tell it to the judge, Doc. Nor is that the only dissonant note from his career in medicine: Coburn was once accused of having sterilized a young woman without her permission. He says she had asked him to perform the surgery, though he conceded that he had lacked the written authorization that the law required.

In the 1990s Coburn criticized NBC for broadcasting Schindler’s List, the Oscar-winning film about the Holocaust, charging that it would encourage "irresponsible sexual behavior." That particular outburst was so odd that even one of his ostensible allies, self-appointed morals czar Bill Bennett, felt compelled to label Coburn’s remarks as "unfortunate and foolish." Coburn is also an outspoken opponent of the "gay agenda" in general and same-sex marriage in particular; as a member of Congress, he refused to allow the city of Washington to fund its program for domestic-partnership benefits.

Earlier this year, Coburn said that lesbianism is "so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they’ll only let one girl [at a time] go to the bathroom." Coburn’s source: a campaign worker. He later said his remarks had been taken "out of context," whatever that was supposed to mean. His spokesman gamely insisted that Coburn was worried that "our kids are getting mixed messages about sexuality." Mixed-up, rather, if they’ve been listening to Coburn.

Sources: Salon, September 13, 2004; AlterNet, March 28 and October 13, 2004; the Associated Press, October 12, 2004.

2) Jim DeMint: ‘The Family’ values, homophobia, and tax chicanery

If Tom Coburn is #1 on our list of exotic senatorial specimens, South Carolina’s Jim DeMint might qualify as #1A rather than #2. Congressman DeMint, who defeated Democrat Inez Tenenbaum in the campaign to succeed another retiring senator, Democrat Ernest Hollings, belongs to a secretive religious organization with anti-Semitic leanings, and is a tax-cut hypocrite and an outspoken homophobe to boot.

The decades-old religious group, best known for sponsoring the annual National Prayer Breakfast, is generally known as "The Family," "The Foundation," or "The Fellowship." A magnet for high-ranking conservative Washingtonians, it is said to have supported some vicious Third World right-wing dictatorships over the years — as well as performing the occasional good deed, such as helping to foster the relationship between Menachem Begin and Anwar el-Sadat. Members also reportedly believe that God’s covenant with the Jews is broken, and that they are "the new chosen." DeMint is close enough to the inner circle to have lived, along with five other congressmen, in a million-dollar Capitol Hill apartment subsidized by "The Family."

During his campaign against Tenenbaum, though, DeMint’s membership in this little-known group was far less of an issue than his mouth was. At a debate in October, DeMint said, "If a person wants to be publicly gay, they should not be teaching in the public schools." Even a local Christian Coalition official and DeMint supporter named Bette Cox said, "I wouldn’t have said that. It’s a civil-rights issue with me. You can’t cut off someone’s civil rights." DeMint refused to apologize — although he did apologize for saying that unwed, pregnant women should not be allowed to teach either. And he declined to fire an aide who’d sent out an e-mail referring to "fags" and "dykes" (or, to be more precise, "dikes").

One of DeMint’s key issues during the campaign was getting rid of the federal income tax and replacing it with a 23 percent flat national sales tax. It’s an idea that President Bush himself has been cozying up to in recent weeks. The simplicity of such a system is undeniably appealing, but, unless carefully designed, it would be the mother of all regressive taxes, biting deeply into the poor and the middle class for everything they buy. So it’s pretty amusing to learn that DeMint is a serial tax scofflaw, repeatedly making late payments on his federal, state, and local taxes between 1987 and 2001.

If nothing else, a flat federal sales tax would prevent well-connected people from gaming the system. People such as Jim DeMint.

Sources: Harper’s magazine, March 2003; the Associated Press, April 20, 2003; the Columbia State, October 4, 2004; 365Gay.com; Salon, October 7, 2004.

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Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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