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Bush’s brain, Karl Rove, came to Arkansas last week to raise money for the Republican Party. His appearance at UCA presented an opportunity for statewide candidates to make brief remarks.

Chuck Banks, who’s running for lieutenant governor, used his minute to mention a devotion to free speech, religion, property rights and guns. And he remarked on other critical issues in the race to preside over the Arkansas Senate — gay marriage, which he opposes, and “Brokeback Mountain,” the cowboy love story. “I told my wife I don’t care if it gets 20 Golden Globe awards, I’m not going to see it,” Banks said. The line brought down the house, we’re told. Good setting. Rove has used antipathy toward homosexuals as a powerful political tool for Republicans.

Banks is a Little Rock trial lawyer, four dirty words to many in the critical Northwest Arkansas Republican base. He’s a good and amiable lawyer. And courageous. As U.S. attorney, he refused to allow his office to be used as a political pawn by the first Bush administration, which wanted Banks to trump up an investigation against Bill Clinton to hurt his election chances in 1992. Banks wouldn’t play along.

Perhaps for that reason, Banks is viewed suspiciously by some Republicans, though he uses every opportunity to prove he’s no liberal. (Just about anybody would look liberal against Jim Holt and Rep. Doug Matayo, his primary opponents.) The Republican base leans heavily toward conservative fundamentalists. To appease them, you must denounce abortion and homosexuality. Banks wanted to show in Conway that his “values” were correct.

Banks knew exactly what I was calling about a couple of days later. He bridled at any suggestion he was anti-gay or that his remark should cause offense. “Consenting adults have a right to choose an alternative lifestyle. I’m just not interested in seeing a movie that promotes that in some respect.” Bad answer. Homosexuality is neither a lifestyle nor a choice.

It didn’t matter that Banks didn’t want to see “Brokeback Mountain.” What matters is that he didn’t see how his remarks and the hooting jackboots who cheered them marginalized one sector of society. I asked Banks if it had occurred to him that a gay person might have been uncomfortable there. He wouldn’t get into feelings. “They’d understand,” he said. Indeed. Any gay person with a brain understands that a candidate in the party of Lincoln must make it clear by words and deeds that gay people should be second-class citizens.

Again, these are my words. Banks insisted he doesn’t endorse discrimination against gay people. Except when it comes to marriage, of course. (He says he hasn’t “thought through” whether sodomy should be criminalized anew should new members of the Supreme Court decide to reopen that question, as many conservatives hope.)

I never expected Banks to embrace gay marriage or abortion rights. But I had hoped for a touch less enthusiasm for whipping up these largely irrelevant issues.

Banks assured me, “I’ve got friends who I believe have an alternative lifestyle.”

What? Democrats?

Postscript: After a weekend of reflection, Banks called back to say I was right about a couple of points I’d raised. “I’m going to be more careful,” he said. “If I’m saying something hurtful and not intending to be, that’s not me. … I’m not going to be about words that divide.”

OK, then. A slightly better tune.




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