Troy Ard, College Republicans Chair, throws support behind Colorado civil unions bill

Openly gay Chairman of the Colorado Federation of College Republicans Troy Ard is lobbying colleagues and friends to support Senator Pat Steadman’s same-sex civil unions bill making its way through the state legislature. Ard’s support for the bill is personal, political and ideological. He wants to enjoy equal rights under the law as a gay American; he believes the Republican brand would benefit enormously by embracing gay rights; and he believes Americans should always be pushing their government to expand individual liberties.

“I’m not speaking for the organization at this point,” Ard told the Colorado Independent, “but I will be personally encouraging people I know to support civil unions, to contact their legislators and tell them what they think.”

The ‘Glee’ generation

Ard said his generation of Republicans can lead on gay rights. He said he has been out and in a relationship and taking his boyfriend around to College Republican functions and has “never met with anything other than acceptance and kindness.” He was elected to the chairmanship unanimously last year.

“The Republican Party is undergoing a fairly rapid change on this issue,” he said. “It has been eight years since I got involved in politics and the climate has totally changed.”

He said that, from what he sees on the ground, the reality is that the party used to have a position on gay rights and now it has a discussion.

“Every year the hard-line social issue stands have waned a little. Even the older generation is realizing that other issues are more important… The discussion was evolving in a way toward the kind of standoff we see on abortion, where there are two intractable sides, but that was a fluke. The history of the GOP is one of fairness. Republicans opposed [slavery].

“The Republican Party is not a monolith. You can be consistently conservative and be pro-gay rights. In fact, in order to be consistently conservative, you have to extend those beliefs to private lives and resolve to treat all citizens the same. A core conservative belief is that government’s purpose is to extend freedom. That’s the overwhelming opinion of my generation of Republicans. I’m seeing a shift in the older generation, too.”

A fake reality

Steadman’s bill, SB 172, would grant straight and gay couples the right to form state-recognized unions that bestow the legal protections and responsibilities now granted only to married couples. Couples entering into a civil union could share insurance and pension benefits and make medical and inheritance decisions for one another. They would also be able to adopt children more easily and be bound to pay alimony and child support should their relationships dissolve. Even though some of those rights are available to non-married couples now, they come with hefty legal price tags and home inspection visits from state workers.

In voting for the bill in committee a few weeks ago, Durango Republican Senator Ellen Roberts said the law would reckon with the reality that gay couples are living together and having families. Establishing statutes that take the couples and their children out of legal limbo is just the responsible thing to do, she said. Her Republican Senate colleague Kevin Lundberg disagreed, siding with the many witnesses who quoted scripture to the committee. Lundberg said that, in embracing civil unions, the state could “misdirect marriage.”

Ard said he respects the religious arguments against civil unions but doesn’t believe they meet constitutional standards. There’s denial at work in these arguments, he said, and it can’t last.

“I know more gay young Republicans than I know young gay Democrats,” Ard said. His reality exists and should be acknowledged because it’s not going away, he said.

“The way we can fix the Republican Party is to have more Republicans be honest with the party,” Ard said. “You have to take a risk. I took a risk. I know I’m saying who I am. I think we’re doing something powerful in expanding what it means to be conservative because it’s through discussion that we can come to terms with who we are as individuals and as a party.

“What has damaged our brand has been [the embrace of] a fake reality. It takes people brave enough to stand up and, by speaking out, shape that reality.”

Ard recently sent out a release opposing Republican efforts in Congress to defend the 15-year-old anti-gay marriage Defense of Marriage Act. The move by congressional Republicans came after President Obama said he thought the act was unconstitutional and directed the Justice Department to no longer defend it against court challenges.

Ard said it was important to take the power away from Democrats and to lead on a matter that’s about increasing personal liberty and reining in government control.

A Republican decision

In Colorado, as in most of the country, real movement on gay rights will come from the political right.

State Democratic lawmakers have lined up behind Steadman’s civil unions bill from the moment it was introduced on Valentine’s Day. It has passed through several Democrat-controlled Senate committees and it will likely pass on the Senate floor this week or next week.

Another not-fake reality concerning gay rights, one that Ard readily acknowledges, is that the GOP has long been the party of social conservative views and the religious right and that there is nowhere else for those constituents to go. Part of that reality is that those GOP constituents may dominate for at least a little while longer on this issue.

The House sponsor of the bill, Denver Democrat Mark Ferrandino, has said he is confident he has lined up enough Republican votes to pass the bill in the House, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority, but to get to the floor for a vote, the bill first has to make it past Republican-controlled House committees, where four or five hard-line social conservatives could kill it.

Indeed, gay rights group OneColorado has pivoted in its campaign for the bill, training recent outreach efforts on Colorado Republican voters. In a recent email to “fellow Republicans,” OneColorado underlined the way the bill seeks to bolster limited government and individual liberties.

The values of limited government and individual freedom are the core values of moderate and conservative voters in Colorado. Civil unions are consistent with these values, ensuring that the power of the government is not misused to limit the liberties of any Coloradan.

As Coloradans and Republicans, we are proud of our leadership in protecting individual liberties. The Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, must continue to champion civil liberties. Our leaders should ensure a civil and fair discussion about civil unions in the Colorado Legislature.

The group cites a Greenberg Quinlan Rossner survey it commissioned last year that found 61 percent of Colorado Republicans support civil unions. Overall, the idea of extending domestic partnership rights through civil unions is popular in the state, with repeat polling finding 72 percent support. Among young Americans, the percentages showing support rise significantly. The numbers reflect the impression on the ground here and around the country that public opinion generally and across the political spectrum has moved fast on this issue in the last half decade. Indeed surveys show solid majorities of Americans now oppose the Defense of Marriage Act and support granting gay couples expanded domestic partnership rights. More than that, for the first time ever, more Americans support gay marriage than oppose it.

In 2006 Colorado voters passed Amendment 43 defining marriage as only a union between a man and a woman. The same year voters narrowly rejected an amendment that would have established civil unions.

“It may be more appropriate to repeal Amendment 43 and establish fully equal rights,” said Ard. “Practically speaking, though, I think it’s important we find a way to grant equal rights and this does that sooner rather than later.”

Ard says the College Republicans are not officially associated with the state GOP and so enjoy some independence and exert some pressure on that score.

The College Republican convention will be held April 16 and Ard says he expects delegates to raise the issue of civil unions at the convention and that it will have a place in the platform developed there.

“I fully expect one of the thousands of us at the convention will raise this issue. There is no official College Republicans position on this issue yet but I personally know many college Republicans who support civil unions and gay marriage.

“It’s a different world for Republicans under 30.”

[Images: flickr Colorado Federation of College Republicans ]

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