Colorado civil unions battle a heated all-Republican affair

DENVER– At a state Senate committee hearing on a same-sex civil unions bill held here Wednesday, a series of witnesses battered Republican lawmakers opposed to the bill, suggesting they were confused in their ideology, nonstrategic in their thinking and enslaved to an outdated anti-gay “hateful bigoted mantra.” The harsh criticism came not from Democrats and their allies but from Republicans testifying in favor of the bill on the basis of conservative principles and out of partisan interest in the future success of the party.

“I moved to Colorado to change the party from within,” said Michael Carr, a Log Cabin Republican and a party precinct captain in Colorado. “I think it’s important for Republicans to look at this issue with a cold calculating eye…. [Opinions] are advancing very quickly on homosexuality, civil unions, even gay marriage.

“As a severe Republican partisan, I want the party to be around for a while,” he said. “I want it to be the party to challenge big government and big spending and if the party continues to take up this sort of hateful bigoted mantra, I fear the party is going to lose young people, who will identify as independents, and we’ll have less troops on the ground come election time.”

The bill, SB2 introduced last year as well by Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, would grant straight and gay couples in Colorado the right to form state-recognized unions that would bestow many of 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, for example. 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 unique hurdles like home inspection visits from state workers. The bill was defeated by one vote last year in a Republican-majority House committee determined to keep it off the House floor, where supporters believe it would have passed in a full chamber vote.

The fusty and the brash

Mario Nicolais, a major Republican Party figure in Colorado and an attorney at Hackstaff Law Group, the conservative politics firm where intensely Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler was partner, directed his remarks almost entirely at Republican Committee member and outspoken traditional marriage defender Kevin Lundberg.

“I’m the spokesman for Coloradans for Freedom,” Nicolais said to open his testimony, referring to the group of high-profile state Republicans who have banded together this year to support civil unions.

“I am a radically partisan Republican… and I am here to say that conservative principles unequivocally support civil unions. I think that’s something necessary for this committee to hear and the people of this state to hear. There are many conservatives who believe this… We don’t think it’s a gay-rights issue. We think it’s an equal-rights issue… We think personal liberty and individual freedom rights are at stake and those are twin pillars of conservative thought.”

“I am a radically partisan Republican and I’m here to say that conservative principles unequivocally support civil unions. I think that’s something necessary for this committee and the people of this state to hear.”

Last year, Nicolais was the “defacto leader” among Republicans on the state’s legislative reapportionment commission, a mark of his standing with the party but also now perhaps a dubious credential in some quarters, given that the Democratic members of the commission outmaneuvered Republicans to effectively decapitate GOP legislative leadership by drawing powerful incumbents into the same districts. In that light, the showdown over civil unions between Nicolais, a brash operator in the world beyond the walls of the capitol, and Lundberg, a congressional candidate, fusty Christian-politics figure and staid member of the legislature for a decade, seemed particularly charged for the glimpse it offered on the generational power struggle being waged on the right in Colorado, where outspoken younger idealists are seen as either rebuilding or ruining the Republican party.

Looking up at Lundberg, who was seated in the elevated “bench” of the Old Supreme Court Chamber where the hearing was held, Nicolais pressed a point saturated with culture-war references, casting images of gay family life into the air through a Republican lens and, in doing so, bending sterotypical Colorado conservative views to the shaking point.

“Civil unions are good conservative public policy. They promote monogamous relationships. They promote families. They promote caring for children,” Nicolais said. “You can’t go to a Republican caucus or stump speech without hearing those values espoused over and over and over again. It is Republican red meat and I [repeat it] all the time myself.”

Sniffing heresy, Lundberg asked if Nicolais should then be counted among those who believe the “one-man, one-woman” defintion of marriage voted into the state constitution in 2006 is “inappropriate public policy.”

“No, that [assertion] is categorically wrong,” said Nicolais. “Most of our group differentiates very much between marriage and civil unions… We praise this bill because it recognizes [Colorado’s Amendment 43]. The idea that an institution as old and as important as marriage would be reliant on the government for any sort of protection is antithetical to conservative thought… [This bill concerns] a relationship between two committed people and their government and we think that is entirely appropriate. The question of gay marriage should be reserved for another day.”

“I respectfully disagree that we’re talking about marriage as a different thing,” Lundberg said. “What are the differences except for the name? It sounds to me that what you’re arguing for is a very different form of that marriage relationship, [one] that is antithetical to what the Colorado Constitution defines as between one man and one woman exclusively.”

“Marriage is something bigger,” said Nicolais with Steadman sitting silently next to him and the four Democratic committee members eyeing the exchange from the right side of the bench. “What we’re talking about here is the relationship between two people and their government. That is it. That is what civil unions are.

“But marriage is different,” he continued. “It is between two people, between their families their communities, their churches, their gods, all things conservatives don’t think the government should be a part of… Many supporters [of Coloradans for Freedom] differ on these questions. Many of our supporters are in favor of gay mariage. Many believe the state should get out of the marriage business. There’s a divide there. What we all agree on is that, when it comes to this very limited tie– the relationship between the government and two people who have committed themselves to each other and to a life together– we think that that should be equal because we believe in equal rights…. Equal rights and civil rights are what we argue for as conservatives.”

“I find it remarkable,” said Lundberg, “that you draw a parallel with civil rights issues of past decades and yet resist any comparison of civil unions to marriage as having a similar [likely societal impact]. Your arguments are that this is a conservative principle. If that’s the case, then the conservative people of Colorado would agree with you, and that [scenario] is a very far stretch by my experience of public policy. I submit you are a remarkable exception to the rule.”

Democratic Committee Chair Morgan Carroll then looked from Lundberg to Nicolais, as did the 200 people who filled the chamber gallery. “Mr. Nicolais, do you want to respond?” she asked.

“I will, briefly, just to say that Coloradans for Freedom, we wanted to add our conservative voices to the conservative voices out there. It’s not just cut and dried that conservatives oppose civil unions. It’s simply not true.”

Freedom, families, religion

Troy Ard, openly gay chairman of the state’s College Republicans, also called into question opposition to the bill on ideological grounds. He suggested opposition was not consistent with conservative views of limited government that dominate on other controversial topics like gun control and taxes and so the position raises the specter that there are other less attractive factors driving it.

“I must wholeheartedely disagree with those who can believe that sound government is limited government and that personal liberty is one of the most important doctrines of our federalist society but then at the same time believe that government should be involved in picking and choosing which American couples can live together and enjoy government recogniiton,” he said.

Republican Committee member Ellen Roberts was one of three Senate Republicans, all women, who supported the bill last year. She voted in favor of this year’s bill Wednesday and her questions for witnesses over the course of the hearing were designed to shore up confidence among conservatives. Mostly she sought to underline the vital and presently absent protections the bill provides for the children of gay couples and the safeguards for religious liberty the bill includes.

Roberts pushed back, for example, against Cahleen Hagerty, a spokesperson for Colorado Catholic Charities, who testified that the bill “could jeopardize” her organization’s placing children with adoptive families.

Roberts asked for specifics on how Catholic Charities might be affected and then read out specific language in the bill meant to address the very issue.

“This article shall not be interpreted to require a child placement agency to place a child for adoption with a couple that has entered into a civil union pursuant to this article.”

Hagerty said she had only meant to “draw a parallel” to civil union laws passed in other states. “We’re worried about the future,” she said.

Capitol corridors and chambers

The political landscape in Colorado has changed dramatically since last year’s debate over civil unions. Gay rights have expanded in states across the country. The leaders of the Armed Forces are lifting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning open gay military service. The Obama administration has said it believes the federal Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and has ceased defending it from court challenges. Proposition 8 banning gay marriage in California has been ruled against twice. Reputable public-opinion polls have consistently found large majorities of Americans in favor of greater relationship equality, including in Colorado. And after last year’s Democratic Party redistricting victory, Colorado Republicans face a much more difficult election terrain this year than they have faced in decades.

Acknowledging these developments, Democrat Steadman told the Colorado Independent that, nevertheless, the back-channel conversation around the bill, the kind of nitty-gritty negotiations in corridors that can translate to key votes in chambers, hasn’t really changed this year, at least not yet. Indeed, after five-plus hours of hearing testimony, Steadman wore the set face of a distance runner, eyes on the horizon, as determined to continue the fight for the bill as he is to see and state clearly the challenges littering its route to the governor’s desk.

Republican Roberts, however, had a different take. She wore a hesitant smile when she told the Colorado Independent that she thought that in the last year the conversation has been broadened on the right in Colorado.

“Coloradans for Freedom is part of that,” she said. “Republicans are united by common ground on ideas about economic opportunity and also about equal rights. Abe Lincoln was a Republican and I think some of the ideas that drove Lincoln have been lost in the intervening years. Seeing this as a family issue is important. Supporting this doesn’t make you a RINO. I think a lot of Republicans hadn’t thought about civil unions in that way– that gay couples take their kids to the doctor, to karate, do all the family things. I think more Republicans are recognizing these are people just trying to have a normal family life. We’re evolving. Maybe this time we’ll see this bill as less about sexual preference and more about families.”

In her closing remarks, before voting in favor of the bill, Roberts directly addressed the two main issues Lundberg cited in voting against it.

“This is a slippery slope to same-sex marriage,” he said. In fact, Lundberg never really argued against the bill itself. He said he thought it was really a gay marriage bill not a civil unions bill and that, even though the the bill as written may not infringe upon the state’s “one-man, one-woman” definition of marriage, once on the books, the bill could be reworked to do so.

“This bill is a stepping stone,” he said. “I see this as a deep problem in regard to the [constitution] we were sworn to uphold.”

Roberts said the bill carefully defines civil unions and respects the constitution.

“I return to the 20 years I spent as an estate-planning attorney where I dealt with same-sex couples who were raising children. There’s a difference between marriage and civil unions, and the biggest thing [this] bill does is sustain the family unit. I don’t agree this is marriage… Yes, statutes might change. But you could say that about every one of our statutes.”

[ Images: Top: Lundberg, left, Nicolais, right. Side series: Steadman in conversation with reporters after the hearing. ]