Bella’s Tough Talk

By 1982, the gay community had become a reliable constituency for the Democratic Party, not only turning out to vote in local and national elections but also donating to Democratic candidates and causes.

One of the earliest and most influential fundraising organizations in the gay and lesbian community was a political action committee called MECLA, the Metropolitan Elections Committee of Los Angeles. Spearheaded by well-connected gay professionals like David Mixner, who ran Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s 1977 reelection campaign, the group hosted lunch and dinner events for the leading candidates of the day, including Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart and Jerry Brown.

MECLA raised funds to defeat the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in California in 1978 and successfully lobbied for a Los Angeles city ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Bella Abzug at a press conference.

Bella Abzug, an outspoken progressive, said voters should demand action, not just words, from politicians. Photo: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo.

Democratic candidates were happy to attend the group’s events and accept their donations, but they didn’t always support LGBT priorities. Gov. Brown took money from MECLA in 1982 at the same time he shelved a series of public service ads aimed at combating the AIDS epidemic. His excuse? He might lose his bid for the U.S. Senate if he aligned himself too closely with the gay community. He lost anyway.

A few months later, Bella Abzug, the tough-talking former congressional representative from New York, came to Los Angeles with some words of advice for the group. “We ask too little for ourselves,” she said. “We need to ask more of our politicians.”

I covered the half-hour speech for radio station KPFK in Los Angeles. The audio has been preserved thanks to the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives. Clips from the speech were aired at the time, but this is the first time Abzug’s full remarks have been available. Her speech is preceded by a brief introduction by a MECLA board member.

Abzug, a lifelong feminist and progressive politician known as Battling Bella, introduced the first federal gay rights bill, known as the Equality Act of 1974. She died in 1998 of complications from heart surgery. She was 77.