Bradley rips Gore's 'scare tactics' to win gay votes

By Bob Hohler and Michael Crowley, Globe Staff, 2/15/2000

AN FRANCISCO - Flashing his first burst of real anger in the presidential campaign, Bill Bradley yesterday accused Vice President Al Gore of ''shamelessly'' stooping to ''the worst use of scare tactics I have seen in many years'' to try to turn the homosexual community against him.

Bradley, who has been criticized for not fighting harder in his increasingly bitter struggle with Gore, let loose his rage after awakening to a front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle in which Gore said Bradley's health plan ''would devastate tens of thousands of people with long-term debilitating diseases such as AIDS.''

Gore's claim was the latest in a series of blistering attacks on Bradley and came two days after the vice president blasted Bradley as a ''Demo-pessimist'' for criticizing Gore.

Bradley, who has maintained a trademark reserve throughout his sports and political careers, turned red with anger as he described how the news story had ''made my blood boil.''

''I find the comments made by the vice president outrageous,'' Bradley said at a news conference, flanked by gay activists. ''I find them to be a use of scare tactics that he should be ashamed of, and I would think any fair person would believe the same.''

Gore asserted that Bradley's plan to replace Medicaid coverage for the poor with federally subsidized private insurance would compromise health care for the 50 percent of AIDS patients who are covered by Medicaid.

Bradley contended that his plan would improve care for patients with HIV and AIDS in part because it would prohibit insurers from denying coverage based on preexisting conditions and would provide broader coverage through a system of community health centers.

Gore, campaigning in New York yesterday, barely acknowledged his opponent, though his spokesman brushed off Bradley's counterattacks.

''The bottom line is that Senator Bradley cannot refute Al Gore's challenge that his health care plan does not provide adequate coverage for those who suffer from HIV,'' said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane. ''What you're seeing is that Senator Bradley is beginning to wilt under the pressure.''

The AIDS issue is particuarly volatile in the Bay Area, where the region's large homosexual community wields great influence at the polls. But gays and lesbians are considered a core Democratic constituency across the country, and both candidates have aggressively sought their support.

Bradley's position was defended yesterday by Henry J. Aaron, a health care policy expert at the Brookings Institution, who called Gore's charges misleading and ''gratuitous.''

Of Gore's assertion that HIV-positive people would be denied full coverage under Bradley's plan, Aaron said, ''it's just not a legitimate criticism.''

Jeff Sheehy, an AIDS patient and Bradley supporter, called Gore's comments about Bradley's health plan ''astounding for their ignorance.''

''For the vice president to frighten people who are in precarious and marginal situations, it causes me to ask serious questions about his character,'' Sheehy said.

Bradley's display of anger overshadowed an environmental speech he gave minutes earlier in which he touted his legislative record and described Gore as ''long on promises and short on action.''

Bradley unveiled his plan to create ''a 21st-century version of Noah's Ark'' in which the government would identify rare and threatened ecosystems on federal land and establish priorities for restoring and preserving them.

Brent Blackwelder, president and founder of Friends of the Earth, said Gore ''is good on rhetoric .... But in terms of legislation he has been missing in action and the last eight years have been a disappointment.'' Blackwelder's group endorsed Bradley last year.

As they debated health care for people with HIV and AIDS yesterday, both Gore and Bradley took positions clearly in line with most mainstream gay and lesbian groups. But both candidates have taken more liberal positions than they held on gay rights early in their careers.

For instance, as a Tennessee congressman running for Senate in 1984, Gore opposed a measure outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

''I don't pretend to have an understanding of homosexuality that sustains a discussion of its roots ... but I do not believe it is simply an acceptable alternative that society should affirm,'' Gore told the Nashville Tennessean at the time.

During that race Gore also said he would not take campaign contributions from gay rights groups.

In recent weeks, Bradley has assailed Gore's less liberal record on issues like abortion and gun control during the 1980s.

Like Gore, however, Bradley also has shifted his views on gay rights since that time.

''I do not support gay rights,'' Bradley said during his first campaign for US Senate in 1978. And like Gore, Bradley also opposed a ''gay bill of rights'' in 1984.

Both Bradley and Gore underwent gradual changes in attitude in recent years, their campaigns said yesterday.

''Many people in America have come to learn about the problem of antigay discrimination and changed their view over the years,'' said Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway. ''Policy makers are no exception.''

Bradley spokeswoman Kristen Ludecke said Bradley's views on gays and lesbians were transformed in the early 1990s, when he was outspoken about racial discrimination in America.

''At that time when he was such a vocal person on race he was approached by people in the gay community who said, `What about us?''' Ludecke said. ''He really went through a kind of awakening at that point that made him realize what it meant to be gay.''

Ludecke added that Bradley was strongly influenced by ''A Boy's Own Story,'' Edmund White's 1982 novel about a gay adolescent growing up in the 1950s.