Conservative State Senator Shawn Mitchell voted against the same-sex civil unions bill introduced this legislative session in Colorado, and there was nothing surprising about that. He did surprise, however, with his silence on the chamber floor during debate and with his absence in the media coverage around the bill. Turns out Mitchell, a high-profile opponent of gay rights in the past but also a strong libertarian and no prude, was waffling.
In a blog post written for Colorado Peak Politics, he now says he’s no longer fully convinced by the “defending traditional marriage” arguments leveled against the bill. He says he is coming to believe that any unproven theoretical negative effect same-sex civil unions might have on the child-nurturing power of marriage pales in comparison to the not-theoretical day-to-day life advantages same-sex civil unions would grant gay citizens of the state.
[T]he years have brought different experiences into focus. I’ve known a number of gay couples with and without children. They’re simply trying to pursue happiness….
I wondered if I was focusing on a mote that might touch heterosexual families, and missing a beam squeezing gay households. Maybe recognizing civil unions could blur the focus on two parent homes raising children. But maybe the impact would be minuscule compared to broader trends ravaging families. And maybe the benefits that same-sex households would feel acutely are simply more important and more valuable to them than any speculative and marginal damage to the climate for heterosexual commitment is to others.
Mitchell is not alone among Colorado Republicans whose views are shifting on the topic. Republicans all over the state have been standing up for gay rights in general and for the civil unions bill in particular.
Former state Rep and redistricting appointee Rob Witwer wrote a thoughtful defense of same-sex marriage rights for the same blogsite the day before Mitchell’s appeared.
More significantly, three of Mitchell’s colleagues in the Senate– 20 percent of the GOP caucus– argued passionately in favor of the bill and voted to support it the same day Mitchell stared at his shoes and voted no.
Some will dismiss Mitchell’s post-vote reflection as too little too late– and it does come too late to make a new law, which is the thing that matters when you’ve been elected and paid to consider and vote on legislation.
Yet with his blog post, Mitchell, a major Republican figure in the state, has wrenched open the gay-rights debate much wider on the conservative side, moving it out of libertarian and youth circles and placing it flat on the kitchen table for mainstream Republicans to discuss as openly as he has done.
He has also, whether consciously or not, pointed a damning finger directly at the six GOP members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted as a bloc to kill the bill. It was the responsibility of those lawmakers not mainly to weigh the merits of the bill as law but to weigh whether the bill merited full and open consideration in the House chamber.
The Senate passed the bill with bipartisan support. The full House Democratic caucus and key House Republicans had gone on record as supporting the bill. Weeks later, Republicans around the state, including a senator who voted against the bill, are unabashed in saying the topic of same-sex domestic partnership rights merits consideration from all sides.
Committee Chair Bob Gardner at the hearing told the Colorado Independent that because Coloradans in 2006 had voted down a civil unions referendum, he felt that passing legislation five years later to create civil unions would be unjustifiably “aggregating to ourselves” a certain kind of power on the topic that belonged to the people.
Yet he and the other GOP members of that committee also knew they were aggregating to themselves the power to cut off consideration of a bill they owed it to their constituents and colleagues to green light, not for passage, but for the kind of full debate where the waffling Mitchells of the House could have joined the discussion on the record, not as bloggers but as lawmakers, and if not with their opinions, then at least with their votes.