WASHINGTON -- A new group made up mostly of Democrats and independents has formed to pressure defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel on LGBT and other social issues, questioning whether he is truly committed to providing equal rights.
Dubbed "Use Your Mandate," the group already has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to a source close to the group who declined to be named in order to speak openly. Use Your Mandate has already sent out a mailer to 350,000 people that says Hagel's "extremist" views on Israel, guns, women's reproductive rights and LGBT issues make him the "wrong choice" for secretary of defense. There is also an anti-Hagel banner ad from the group running on Politico's website, asking whether he's really "the best person for the job."
On Sunday, viewers watching the morning public affairs shows -- NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Face the Nation" and ABC's "This Week" -- will also see a commercial from Use Your Mandate urging senators to vote against Hagel. The spot will also run for a couple of days next week on MSNBC.
The source close to the group said that for now, those involved are choosing to stay anonymous because they are allies with the Obama administration and hesitant to criticize the president publicly or fear retribution or pressure from the White House. The source characterized members as a "concerned group of people who ... have some questions about Chuck Hagel," including individuals who have "fought for LGBT rights for a long time."
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has upset groups like the Log Cabin Republicans for his weak record on gay rights, while other LGBT organizations have cautiously more supportive.
In 1998, Hagel called James Hormel, then-President Bill Clinton's choice for U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, “openly, aggressively gay." He characterized Hormel's sexual orientation as an "inhibiting factor" that would prevent him from doing "an effective job." While a senator, Hagel also consistently voted against gay rights.
Hagel recently apologized for his 1998 remarks about Hormel, saying they were "insensitive."
Hagel attempted to put to rest lingering doubts about his commitment to gay rights on Tuesday, saying he supported the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and would "do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members."
He also vowed to protect female service members' reproductive rights and said he supported Israel, two other issues on which Hagel has faced questions and concern.
Those promises, however, are not enough for Use Your Mandate. The group wants senators -- especially Democrats -- to oppose Hagel until he provides more answers.
"Never in his life, in any public capacity, has he done anything in the positive department for gay rights," said the person close to the group. "Everything that the group is doing is aimed at starting this discussion, and if he doesn't meet the criteria and can't answer some very basic questions with some familiarity and make some commitments that are really no different than the president's really, then what's the point? ... What did we fight this election for? Is this the best that we can do?"
In December, President Barack Obama defended Hagel, saying he was confident in the former senator's evolution.
“With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it,” Obama told "Meet the Press" when asked about Hagel's comments about Hormel. “And I think it’s a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people’s attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country. And that’s something that I’m very proud to have led. And I think that anybody who serves in my administration understands my attitude and position on those issues.”
View Use Your Mandate's mailer:
UPDATE: Jan. 20 -- Other LGBT groups are criticizing Use Your Mandate for keeping its donors and participants secret.
"At OutServe-SLDN, we are disappointed to see this kind of dirty politics make an appearance in the debate about who our next Secretary of Defense should be," said OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson in a statement. "Senator Hagel has appropriately apologized and has taken steps to build trust with our LGBT military families -- specifically, by committing to extend the benefits that may be made available to them even while the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is still on the books. Much remains to be done -- and we still look to Senator Hagel to speak out on other issues important to LGBT service members and their families -- but anonymous, unaccountable attacks do nothing to move the ball forward for our brave LGBT men and women in uniform."
UPDATE: Jan. 28 -- The New York Times reports that despite Use Your Mandate's characterization of itself as a pro-LGBT, Democratic group, the secretive organization appears to rely on a firm that works with Republican clients:
Yet federal records show that Use Your Mandate uses Del Cielo Media, an arm of one of the most prominent Republican ad-buying firms in the country, Smart Media, with clients that have included the presidential campaigns of former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. of Utah and Senator John McCain of Arizona; the 2010 Senate campaign of Christine O’Donnell, who was known for positions against homosexuality, in Delaware; and, as it happens, the Emergency Committee for Israel.