First Person

03.04.14

Kentucky’s Attorney General Goes With His Gut and for Same-Sex Marriage

Jack Conway’s decision to not appeal a judge’s ruling forcing the state to recognize gay nuptials is a brave move in the Bible Belt.

When I ran to be Kentucky’s governor in 2007, I was questioned by a newspaper’s editorial board about how I voted in the 2004 statewide referendum over what I felt was a pernicious constitutional amendment that would not only ban gay marriage, but anything that looked like it, like as civil unions. Privately, I’d supported marriage equality—strongly—ever since Andrew Sullivan introduced much of the country to the possibility in his historic 1989 essay in The New Republic.  But while I had openly supported anti-discrimination laws, and was especially proud to have been the first gubernatorial candidate ever to pursue, secure and embrace the endorsement of gay rights organizations, marriage equality was a third rail that I was still too timid to touch—the amendment, after all, had passed statewide overwhelmingly just three years earlier, with 74 percent support.

So I did what I had done my entire political career on the issue: I lied to the editorial board.  And I didn’t come out of the political closet until I had formally renounced politics a few years later.

My former rival for governor, Democrat Jack Conway, faced a similar challenge on this very same issue today. When a federal judge recently ruled that the Kentucky must recognize lawful same-sex marriages from other states, Attorney General Conway was confronted with the decision on whether to appeal the decision—on behalf of the voters who had so overwhelmingly voted for the ban a decade ago.

For some of Conway’s attorney general colleagues in blue states who encountered similar circumstances, this may have not been a difficult decision. But here, in an inner notch of the Bible Belt, same-sex marriage is still quite an unpopular position.  A few brave Democrats had stepped out months earlier—including, most prominently, Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson, and State Auditor Adam Edelen—but general election voters, to whom Conway will likely appeal in a 2015 gubernatorial run, still oppose legalizing it by a 55-35 percent margin.

Worse yet for Conway, his client, the popular Democratic Governor Steve Beshear—who won statewide liberal plaudits for vetoing an Arizona-like anti-gay, “religious freedom” bill in 2013, and progressive cheers for successfully implementing Obamacare in the state—wanted to pursue the appeal.

Conway went with his gut. In announcing his decision to refuse to pursue an appeal, the attorney general said Tuesday that ”in the end, this issue is really larger than any single person and it’s about placing people above politics…I can only say that I am doing what I think is right…I had to make a decision that I could be proud of—for me now, and my daughters’ judgment in the future.”

Conway’s decision will not have a significant practical effect: Governor Beshear announced a few
 minutes after Conway’s press conference that he would hire outside counsel to pursue the appeal.  But for a populace desperately seeking politicians who are authentic—who lead from their heart, even at great political risk—Conway’s choice may instill a small ray of hope that even in this most cynical of times, conviction can sometimes trump politics.

And for this recovering politician, who has forsaken the arena for many of the same reasons that so many Americans hate politics—as well as for the chance, finally, to live a life when I can always be true to my most passionate beliefs—it’s great comfort to see my former political frenemy take the kind of brave, selfless action that I would have loved to put on my leadership resume.