CPAC Conference Tangled in Controversy Over Gay Conservative Group

Conservative conference stands by decision inviting gay group to attend.

February 2, 2011, 11:49 AM

Feb. 2, 2011 -- By all indications, this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, which is expected to draw more than 10,000 activists to Washington, D.C. later this month, will be as popular as ever.

From speakers like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to panels on "How Political Correctness is Harming America's Military" and "Reagan at 100: Role Model for the Next Generation," the agenda for the three-day gathering is chock full of personalities and events designed to fire up the conservative base.

But not everybody is pleased. Prominent elected officials, including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, as well as several powerful right-leaning groups such as the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, Concerned Women for America, the Media Research Center and others plan to boycott this year's conference in protest of the involvement of the gay conservative group, GOProud.

GOProud, founded in 2009, bills itself as a group that advocates for a "traditional conservative agenda that emphasizes limited government, individual liberty, free markets and a confident foreign policy." But critics say its other mission -- supporting gay rights -- should disqualify it from co-sponsoring CPAC.

The American Principles Project, a non-profit group dedicated to promoting constitutional principles, was among the first to build momentum for a CPAC boycott. Executive Director Andy Blom told ABC News that his group pulled out of the conference this year because his members regard the "sanctity of marriage as every bit as important as keeping taxes low."

Blom said, GOProud is "actively working against one of the most basic tenets of conservatism," and from his perspective, "that just isn't acceptable."

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, disagrees. "If you look at who will be at CPAC," he said, "there are organizations across the spectrum in the conservative movement."

"Our country over the past 20 years or so, is talking about gay people in a different way," LaSalvia told ABC News, "and conservatives aren't any different than any other Americans."

GOProud leaders also say that they have been embraced by mainstream conservatives. Long-time GOP operative Mary Matalin is hosting a fundraiser for the group later this month and the organization's advisory board includes conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart and Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist.

Back in November, the American Principles Project fired off a letter to CPAC officials announcing the boycott, and urging organizers to exclude GOProud from this year's conference. Gary Bauer, president of American Values, Brian S. Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, and Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty School of Law, were among the co-signers.

Both LaSalvia and CPAC organizers insist there is no conflict between the participation of GOProud and the fact that the conference, which runs from Feb. 10-12, will feature panels with titles like "Traditional Marriage and Society."

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which plans the annual CPAC event, said that conference doesn't require "loyalty on every single issue" from attendees, noting that he expects to hear vocal debate on topics like immigration reform and trade policy, in addition to gay rights.

"Our business is to bring together everyone who's under the conservative umbrella," Keene said in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday. "It's like Reagan said, if you're 80 percent with me, you're with me."

That approach has earned Keene some high-profile enemies within the ranks of the social conservative movement.

Sen. DeMint's spokesman released a statement late last month saying, "With leading conservative organizations not participating this year, Senator DeMint will not be attending. He hopes to attend a unified CPAC next year."

Other prominent elected officials, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have declined invitations to speak at this year's convention. Neither Christie nor Rubio, who delivered a keynote speech to the conference in 2010, said their decision had anything to do with GOProud's involvement.

And many other leading conservatives will be there: Potential 2012 GOP candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Mitch Daniels, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., will all address the conference. Also on the agenda: CPAC's annual presidential straw poll, a non-scientific but always interesting gauge of support among conservative activists heading into the next election cycle.

This will be Keene's last CPAC as chairman of the American Conservative Union. He is taking over as president of the National Rifle Association in April.

He said he stands by his belief that this year's controversy amounts to little more than "tempests in a Washington tea pot," as he put it, and alluded to a slow but steady evolution in the attitudes of Republicans on the issue of gay rights.

"Frankly," he said, "I think you've got a lot of people on the social right, in particular, who feel frustrated because generational views of gay issues are changing."

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