Civil unions supporters brace for crucial committee hearing

DENVER — Supporters rallied today on the steps of the Denver City and County Building in support of a state civil unions bill scheduled for crucial consideration this afternoon by the House Judicial Committee.

In the blazing sun, Mayor Michael Hancock kicked off speeches with a free-flowing stem winder of a talk in which he asked the crowd to show up in strong numbers for a hearing likely to extend well into the night.

“Man is it hot up here — and this is the same kind of heat we need to take over to the Judiciary Committee over in the House today. We need to turn on the heat. … I am honored to be here once again but I’m sick and tired of being here on the civil unions issue. The time has come.”

The bill, which is working its way through the legislature for the second year in a row, would grant same-sex couples most of the legal rights and protections afforded to married couples.

Hancock recited the Pledge of Allegiance, launching into call and response.

“I had a gay brother who had a very devoted partner. They’ve never asked for anything outside the realm of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ They asked for the right to love who they want to love. They asked for the right to stand in the gap for their partners when they need to, on financial and medical issues. They asked for the right to enter into legal committed civil relationships just like everyone else does. … Liberty and justice for all!

“The bill today provides all of our residents with the same opportunity to take care of their loved ones. Liberty and justice for all! The same opportunity to strengthen their families. Liberty and justice for all! The same opportunities to enjoy critical legal rights. Liberty and justice for all! The same benefits and protections provided to other citizens. Liberty and justice for all! The ability for us to move beyond simple tolerance toward inclusivity, fairness, and respect. Liberty and justice for all!”

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, sponsor of SB2, as the bill is known, told the crowd he was proud of the debate the bill inspired in the Senate last week.

“It was one of the finest debates I’ve seen our state Senate engage in during the time that I’ve served as your state senator. It was an emotional, a compelling, a moving debate, at times a little frustrating, but in the end the Senate passed this bill on a vote of 23 to 12.”

Steadman gave special credit to the large number of women who voted for the bill.

“Colorado’s state Senate enjoys the distinction of being the legislative chamber in all 50 states that has the greatest percentage of female legislators. Seventeen of the 35 members of your state Senate are women: 14 are Democrats, 3 of them are Republicans, and every single one of them voted for Senate Bill 2.”

Steadman said the bill enjoyed great momentum going into the House and deserved a fair hearing.

House sponsor Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said he was looking forward to a “vigorous debate,” his voice rising as he spoke.

“We have been working hard. We have the best chance of passing civil unions this year. … I said last year ‘It’s not a matter of if but when.’ Well, it’s not a matter of when but now. We need to do this now!”

Political insiders among the crowd buzzed with discussion of the coming committee hearing, much of the talk centered on a late-night memo fired off yesterday by Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Loveland, in which he sought to pressure Republican members of the House to make sure the bill died in committee today.

An excerpt of the memo was posted on popular Colorado politics blog ColoradoPols.

Many were assured that all the Republicans [on the Judicial Committee] were committed to vote ‘no’ on the bill, but today we learned that one has changed her mind, and now she will not commit one way or the other. This has created a great deal of concern, as the bill is almost certain to pass all other committees, the House floor, and the governor has said he will sign it.

The legal practice of Civil Unions in Colorado now hangs on the vote of one Republican lawmaker, Rep. BJ Nikkel, and the Speaker of the House who could replace her on the committee, if he decided to do so.

Lundberg has been a leading opponent of the bill the last two years and a leading opponent of gay rights for many years. In debating civil unions, Lundberg has leaned heavily on arguments tied to the “people’s will” based on ballot-box votes in 2006 that barred gay marriage and rejected civil unions. More recently, as polling data has demonstrated wide and growing support among Coloradans across the political spectrum for legal relationship recognition for gay people, Lundberg has turned predominantly to scripture to make his case, arguing that civil unions would ultimately corrupt marriage as a divinely inspired institution and lead to moral degeneracy.

That’s an argument an increasing number of Republicans have found less than persuasive, given their ideological opposition to “nanny state” laws that they say raise one or another group’s morality over the cause of individual freedom and constitutional equality before the law. Republicans have also recognized that gay couples are having families, regardless of what anyone thinks, and that those families have equal right to the same support and protection the state provides straight families.

The Lundberg memo has drawn attention in part because there seems to be more to it than just legislative maneuvering. That he swung out with such little subtlety at Nikkel hints at animus tied to the fact that Nikkel sits in the House seat he vacated when he moved over to the Senate. She is now his representative at the Capitol. Moreover, Lundberg is running for Congress this year against openly gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. Lundberg has staked a great deal of political capital over the years in warring against gay rights and may be desperate not to lose on his home turf on this issue.

“Can you believe that,” said Senator Steadman, shaking his head at the thought of the memo. “Wow. I would just be pissed if I were [Rep. Nikkel].”

Ironically, the Lundberg memo may have ensured that Steadman’s bill gets a fair hearing today. Speaker Frank McNulty is likely loath to shuffle the Judicial Committee membership and oust Nikkel now that Lundberg has all but eliminated cover for such a move.

As Lundberg points out, the civil unions bill now enjoys majority support in the Republican-controlled House. Killing it under pressure from a small contingent of religious-right lawmakers would play horribly in the press, as it would at most constituent kitchen tables given that nearly all Democrats, most independents and a rough majority of mainstream Republicans in Colorado now favor the bill. That is to say nothing of the reaction to such a move that might come from the high-profile Republican members of the pro-civil unions Coloradans for Freedom coalition who have placed a lot of their own political capital on the line.

Brad Clark, executive Director of LGBT-rights group One Colorado, which organized the rally at the City and County Building and has lobbied hard for civil unions, said he thought Lundberg’s memo would only strengthen Nikkel’s resolve to make up her own mind on the issue.

“I heard she’s in a good place,” he said.

[ Images of, top, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, speaking at the rally, middle, Steadman warming up and, bottom, Rep Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, mixing with the crowd. ]


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