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posted Friday, September 2, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 35
State lawmakers and ERW mull over Gay marriage push
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State lawmakers and ERW mull over Gay marriage push

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Two key Democratic state lawmakers - Sen. Ed Murray and Rep. Jamie Pedersen, both Gay lawmakers from the 43rd District in Seattle - are considering a major push to try and pass a same-sex marriage law in Washington next year.

Currently, only six states - Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont - as well as the District of Columbia, issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Washington's domestic-partnership law provides same-sex couples legal benefits similar to those of marriage.

Murray and Pedersen say they're in early discussion but would have to run the idea by LGBT community leaders and other legislative colleagues before they make up their minds about a marriage equality bill when the next Legislature convenes in Olympia in January 2012.

'Over the past several years, the Legislature and the public together have been steadily building a bridge to equality for Gay and Lesbian families,' Murray told Seattle Gay News. 'Gay and Lesbian families in Washington now enjoy the same state spousal rights that their married straight friends enjoy - except for the name 'marriage.' Though we have yet to realize full marriage equality, today that goal is more achievable and closer to reality than ever before.'

Murray was the prime sponsor of landmark Gay-rights legislation approved by the Legislature in 2006 and a domestic-partnership law that passed in 2007.

Over the past 15 years, there has also been a significant shift in the country's view toward marriage equality, said Murray.

'Maintaining this momentum and continuing a positive public discourse for full equality will be key in the success of any legislation or initiative we undertake,' he told SGN.

Rep. Pedersen told SGN that he is confident that the House has enough votes to support a marriage equality bill. 'The House Democrats have been very strongly supportive of LGBT civil rights,' he said. 'We will likely have one or two Republican votes as well.'

But support for Gay marriage is not the same in the Senate. 'We have historically had and continue to have a slimmer majority in the Senate than the House,' admitted Murray. 'We do not have enough votes in the Democratic Caucus in the Senate to pass marriage equality. Approval will require a bipartisan vote, with some Republicans voting for it.'

Democrats currently hold a 27-22 majority in the Senate and a 56-42 advantage in the House.

Still, records show that state Sens. Jim Hargrove (D-Hoquiam) and Tim Sheldon (D-Potlach) voted against both the Gay-rights and domestic-partnership bills. Sen. Brian Hatfield (D-Raymond) also voted against the domestic partnership bill. So, as Murray pointed out, a bipartisan vote is needed. A vote that may be easier said than done.

Republican Sen. Dan Swecker told the Seattle Times, 'I think primarily the Republicans, but [also] some Democrats, tend to support the traditional definition of marriage and think it's a mistake to try to change that.'

Swecker said he would expect strong opposition to Gay marriage in his caucus.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) told SGN she supports the passage of marriage equality in Washington because she views the subject as a 'fairness and social justice issue.' Still, she alludes that the future of a legislative win may not be a clear one.

'Public opinion is increasingly in favor for marriage equality,' she said. 'Whether or not that translates into 25 votes remains to be seen.'

In addition, Brown pointed out that, historically, it takes the Legislature more than one go-around in order to pass major LGBT equality bills. 'I voted on the anti-discrimination bill my first year as a legislator in 1993,' she said. 'That bill was not successfully passed until years later when I was in the Senate. It takes time and work from the grassroots up through the legislative process on an issue like this.'

Brown is referring to House Bill 2661, a Gay-rights law that took the Washington Legislature 30 years to pass. The measure added sexual orientation to an existing state law that banned discrimination by race, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, and other categories.

ELECT A DEMOCRAT FOR GOVERNOR

Washingtonians will elect a new governor in 2012. Essential to the same-sex marriage push in Washington, say lawmakers and advocates, is the election of Jay Inslee, a Democratic congressman running for governor. He is running against Republican candidate Rob McKenna, Washington state attorney general.

'Jay Inslee supports marriage equality. Rob McKenna voted against domestic partner benefits as a member of the Bellevue city council,' said Rep. Pedersen. 'I think that says it all. Few people can remember what it was like to have an unfriendly governor in office. We don't want to find out.'

Current Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, has signed all pro-Gay legislation sent to her desk.

'A Democrat in the governor's office is critical for our priorities as a movement,' Sen. Murray said. 'Congressman Inslee is the first candidate for that office in the history of the state to openly support marriage equality. Losing this key advocate and control of that office would be a drastic step backwards. Make no mistake; his opponent has never been a supporter of the LGBT community.'

Who is in office makes an incredible difference and how we do our electoral work can influence outcomes on marriage equality, and other issues important to the LGBT community.

'In 2012 there will not be an incumbent in the race for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state races,' Josh Friedes, Equal Rights Washington marriage equality director, told SGN. 'Even in the best-case scenario where we pass a marriage equality bill during the 2012 session, it will be the statewide officers elected in 2012 who implement the new law and defend the new law against legal challenges and future attempts to undermine or repeal the law.'

Equal Rights Washington (ERW) is the state's main LGBT advocacy group and will be in the trenches and leading the charge if the lawmakers decide to push wholeheartedly for same-sex marriage. In fact, the organization has already begun a statewide education campaign in support of marriage equality.

'We are already seeing sharp contrasts in how candidates are approaching the issue of marriage equality,' said Friedes. 'In no race is this clearer than the race for governor where Jay Inslee has spoken out passionately in support of marriage equality. The way in which he is able to relate the important role marriage has played in his own life and understand the legal, emotional, and social hardships LGBT couples suffer in the absence of the legal right to marry really reflects his passionate support for and personal commitment to LGBT equality.'

'By contrast, Rob McKenna's recent statements on marriage equality can be most generously characterized as ignorant, wrong, and harmful,' he said.

According to Friedes, so far, the LGBT community is backing Inslee. 'Not only should marriage equality supporters be contributing to the Inslee campaign now because early money makes a big difference in campaigns, we must also be making sure that our friends, family, and neighbors know that Inslee is the choice of the civil rights community,' he said. 'We need to be talking about Inslee in our Facebook posts and in conversations. There is a myth that McKenna is a moderate. It is our job to dispel this myth.'

'In Washington state, we are blessed that so many legislators - Gay and non-Gay - care passionately about LGBT civil rights,' Friedes told SGN. 'I can think of no other state that has an openly LGBT legislative delegation that is as large and well-respected as ours.'

Sometimes this delegation overshadows the even larger number of straight legislators who also champion LGBT civil rights. Many of these legislators have very close relationships with LGBT people that make the issue deeply personal for them.

'There are also legislators who generally support LGBT civil rights but have less of a nexus to the issue and some who are still undecided,' Friedes pointed out. 'These legislators will be watching very closely how we support Inslee. These legislators need to know that if they stand with us they will get the support they need and deserve if they are threatened by the radical right's electoral efforts. Therefore, supporting statewide candidates who are in competitive races where there is a sharp contrast between the candidates is important. Now is the time where we must make it clear that we are loyal to our friends and will work to protect them, and those who oppose LGBT civil rights will realize that there is a price to be paid for being on the wrong side of history and denying people their constitutional rights.'

GRASSROOTS APPROACH

'The big picture in all of this is that the role of the grassroots movement and the communication that legislators get from their constituents will be a very important part of the process,' Senate Majority Leader Brown told SGN. 'In a state like ours, with initiatives and referendums, an issue like this will almost certainly come down to who wins public support.'

Murray echoes that sentiment, telling SGN that two 'major deciding factors' in deciding whether or not he and Pedersen will push for a marriage equality bill ride on 'whether we can secure a bipartisan vote in the Senate and win on the ballot.'

'We need to feel confident that we can assemble the coalition and the resources to defend a bill at the ballot box if we need to before we decide to start this fight now,' Pedersen said. 'Yes, I think we can win, but it will take a lot of money and work by our community. So the question is really whether we - the larger community - are willing to engage with our time and money to make this happen.'

Pedersen said he encourages SGN readers to 'give generously to Equal Rights Washington and Fighting for the Majority [which raises LGBT money for House and Senate Democrats]. Those are the most important steps that people who want marriage equality in 2012 can take right now to make it happen.'

ERW officials said that the work they need to do to help secure marriage equality is 'going to cost a great deal of money.'

'There is no getting around this,' said Friedes. 'We have to assume that if we are successful in passing a marriage bill that our opponents will try to repeal the law just as they did with the domestic partnership law. In essence, we are really talking about raising the funds for three campaigns. The first campaign is the campaign to pass the marriage equality bill, and this means funds for professional and grassroots lobbying and organizing. The second campaign will further increase the share of voters who support marriage equality and this also means field organizers and a very expensive communications plan. And lastly, of course, would be a ballot campaign to prevent a bill from being repealed. The campaigns overlap and complement each other but they are not the same.'

A great deal of money has already been raised and spent, he said, and ERW must be prepared to raise and spend more money than ever before.

'I do think it is important to see the work to come as an extension of the work that was done to pass the domestic partnership laws and retain the law through the Approve 71 campaign,' said Friedes. 'Through this work a great deal of experience has been gained, infrastructure developed in the form of a robust coalition, strong relationships, and technology. But we also must not kid ourselves; experience in other states has shown that marriage-equality battles are much more expensive and intense than campaigns to secure domestic partnerships and civil unions.'

Friedes says people often underestimate the cost of running campaigns because they don't see the hidden costs.

'Effectively coordinating the activities of hundreds of organizations, unions, houses of worship, and businesses requires staff,' he said. 'The coalition and individuals require materials and support to engage their networks. This is expensive with respect to staffing, technology, and printing. Meeting the needs of the media and bloggers requires staff. Coordinating thousands of volunteers who do everything from door knocking to phone banking to public speaking requires staff and expensive technology. We get an incredible amount of resources donated and in-kinded to us, but the bottom line is campaigns are expensive.'

Presently, ERW is focused on raising money to hire political organizers and pay increased lobbying expenses, he said. They are also seeking grants from a variety of sources to conduct their educational work. In addition, they are engaged in conversations with national partners including the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom to Marry about how to raise more funds.

TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES MAY NOT BE ENOUGH

Marriage equality really is different from most other issues. Many traditional campaign techniques don't work - or, at least, not in the same way. This means ERW has to engage people in a more direct way than in a traditional campaign, which often relies principally on issue television advertisements, for example, said Friedes.

'People change their positions on marriage equality through two primary ways. First, our research shows that people change their opinions as a result of conversations with friends and family members,' he continued. 'While conversations with Gay people seem somewhat more effective, conversations with straight people are surprisingly compelling. Given that 95% or so of Washington voters are straight, we must increase our efforts to engage our straight allies in our educational work.'

For several months, ERW has been engaged in conversations with a variety of predominantly straight allied organizations to discuss what this will look like. 'Success will require the engagement of organized labor, large and small business, faith communities, social service providers, civic and arts organizations, and the entire LGBT community,' said Friedes.

According to ERW officials, the second way people move toward support for marriage equality is by direct interaction with LGBT people.

'While being out is the greatest transformative act LGBT people can undertake in the struggle for LGBT equality, we can always learn to be better advocates for our own rights,' Friedes told SGN. 'While LGBT people are increasingly out, we seem less willing to be out about our families and our needs. Here again it really does come down to conversations - although these conversations can sometimes even be nonverbal.'

For example, ERW officials say they find that many people who are willing to support marriage equality don't think the issue is important to their Gay friends or family members because their Gay friends and family members are not talking to them about the issue.

'So whether it is direct conversations, the 'I do support marriage equality' bumper sticker on your car, inviting your friends and family to a marriage equality fundraiser, or asking them to contact their legislators in support of marriage equality, it's imperative that LGBT people convey to their straight friends and family members that marriage equality is important to them,' said Friedes. ' And then take it to the next step and really try to engage your straight social network in marriage equality advocacy. There is no better way of conveying how important the issue is to you than asking for help!'

ERW has announced they are increasing their outreach to the LGBT community to help us become more effective and efficient advocates.

'I myself am doing much more traveling around the state then I have been able to do in the past,' said Friedes. 'In the next two weeks, I'll be in Vancouver, the east-side suburbs of Seattle, and the San Juan Islands meeting with LGBT and non-LGBT individuals and organizations to discuss our important work. Through the fall months, expect to see organizing meetings all across the state similar to the meetings organized at the start of the Approve 71 campaign. Our plan is to soon bring on field organizers who can engage organizations, business, labor, houses of worship, and LGBT and allied individuals in key areas across the state.'

'We need to stay focused on telling the stories of the lives of LGBT families and the problems we face in the absence of marriage equality,' he said. 'We need to communicate these stories to our elected leaders, to our social networks and through the media. While we need to pay attention to what our opponents are doing, we need to remember that ultimately this is about strengthening families and ending discrimination, not about defeating an opponent. After all, we are winning because people who once saw marriage equality as a bad thing now see it differently. We got this support not by demonizing our opponents, but by having the courage to come out and have public civil conversations even when they were personally painful.'

MUCH MORE WORK TO BE DONE

There is, of course, a great deal more in the works, but ERW does not want to release too much because marriage equality opponents have begun to read everything they write and say publicly.

'Our emails to our membership seem to keep ending up in fundraising emails to radical right organizations,' Friedes said. 'They are so freaked out by what we are doing. They can see the writing on the wall. They can read polls just like we can and they know we have personal stories on our side. They see opposition to marriage equality crumbling and they understand that an issue that was their wedge issue in the 2004 elections may be our wedge issue in 2012. Our opponents are being smart about one thing: They are focused on raising money, and so, too, must we be.'

Lastly, Friedes said that 'The key to being successful in achieving marriage equality in Washington state will be harnessing all available resources in a coordinated manner.'

'I have experience working in several states, and to me, what makes Washington state so exciting is that we have diverse coalitional resources,' he said. 'And when I say 'coalition,' I mean that term in the broadest sense.'

'We have a talented openly Gay elected leadership that drives the Gay civil rights agenda in the legislature in a way that is the envy of almost every other state,' he concluded. 'We have a well-organized choice and women's advocacy community that has a history of being dedicated to LGBT civil rights, and we have strong allies in labor, business, and faith communities with established networks. And Washington state has a variety of strong LGBT organizations including the Pride Foundation, the GSBA, and others that frequently do not exist in other states. It will be the effective coordination of all these assets and then filling in the gaps that will make our collective campaigns a success.'

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