Positive Effect

05.19.12

Gay Politicians: Colorado Civil Unions Debacle Will Galvanize Voters

The state’s civil unions bill died this week, and a GOP lawmaker with a gay son was the deciding vote. But gay politicians tell Allison Yarrow the uproar over the bill will energize voters in November.

Ranchers, farmers and other conservative customers filed into the Coffee Trader in Montrose, Colo., this week for their regular cups, but also to apologize to its 44-year-old owner, Dee Coram. Not only had Colorado legislators killed a bill Monday that would have allowed civil unions, but Republican Rep. Don Coram, Dee’s father, cast the deciding vote.

“He told me, ‘I will be a no,’” said Coram, whose father called himself “the proud father of a gay son” on the state house floor before making his vote. “I can’t get inside his head. I don’t know why he did it. I can’t speak for why he brought me into it. The fact of the matter is he did.” The 5-4 vote, the younger Coram added, has taken “more of an emotional toll on him than myself.”

About 62 percent of Coloradoans favored the civil unions bill, and 53 percent support same-sex marriage, according to a recent poll. Stakeholders on both sides thought the bill had partisan support after Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper called a special session.

Hickenlooper himself was such a loud proponent that he had vowed to pass such legislation in his State of the State address in January. The timing seemed optimal, after President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage the week before. But Rep. Coram, vice chairman of the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, doubled down on what he had told his son.

Colorado Democrats blamed Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty for kicking the bill to the Veterans and Military Affairs Committee rather than bringing it to the floor for a House vote, calling his actions “bizarre,” “shenanigans,” and an “abuse of power.”

Hickenlooper voiced his displeasure about the nontraditional procedure in a statement on his website: “With the exception of civil unions, each of the bills we put on the special session call received an open debate and a final vote just like they deserved.”

McNulty stood by the move, telling a crowd outside the Capitol: “Go back to your communities, neighborhoods, churches and let them know that the fight continues, and that we will continue it today, through the next legislative session and every time that marriage is attacked.”

“It was really disappointing. The worst thing was that we had the votes,” said state Assembly minority leader Mark Ferrandino, a Democrat whose partner, Greg Wertsch, is listed as his “husband” on his Colorado General Assembly bio.

Ferrandino said he is not sure how that information got onto the website, adding that it caused a “big controversy” at the time. He laughed at the irony of it: his state constitution forbids same-sex marriages, civil unions were again rejected after an earlier attempt in 2011, and a state government website lists that he is married to a man, for Colorado and all the world to see.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is another Democrat frustrated by the highly visible and political failure of the civil unions bill. As the first “out” freshman elected to Congress and one of the four co-chairs of the LGBT caucus—along with Barney Frank, Tammy Baldwin, and David Cicilline—he has written and sponsored a range of gay-rights legislation during his four years in national office. He is a large part of the effort to throw out the Defense of Marriage Act, which he calls a critical step in setting an example for the states.

Polis said he is sure the Colorado bill’s defeat will galvanize the state electorate, particularly voters who identify as gay and lesbian, to voice their displeasure at the polls. “The way this issue was handled turned off not only gay and lesbian voters but their friends and families. They will all engage more,” he said.

Purple Colorado is certainly in play for the presidential election, and Polis said he thinks Obama will prevail by a small margin, his new stance on marriage notwithstanding. Ferrandino said Coloradoans hardly noticed Obama’s change of heart because the state was so focused on the civil unions bill. He saw the president in a state visit the week before his same-sex marriage endorsement, he said, and “thanked him for his work on LGBT issues, not knowing he would come out [for marriage] a few weeks later.”

Polis, Ferrandino, and others say they expect a civil unions bill, which would have extended domestic partner benefits, medical decision-making, and inheritance rights to same-sex couples, to win in Colorado next session.

“The way this issue was handled turned off not only gay and lesbian voters but their friends and families. They will all engage more.”

Plenty of Republicans in the state had predicted that the bill would pass, including Alex Hornaday, vice president of the Colorado Log Cabin Republicans. “I’m nervous that in Colorado, Republicans are setting themselves to be little more than the anti-gay, anti-abortion party,” he said before the vote.

Dee Coram said his conservative java shop customers and friends all feel that “it’s time to move on and get this over with. Let civil unions happen.”

His father called the proposal a “bad bill,” he said, with language that uncomfortably invoked marriage with the repetition of the word “spouse.” But his father also told him the civil unions bill needed a House floor vote, rather than being dissolved in committee. Rep. Coram “could have sent it to the floor to have his colleagues vote on it,” Dee Coram said. “I believe he was given an opportunity to take charge and take a leadership role and that he cowered to the Republican leadership.”