Nikkel: Legislature right place to weigh civil unions

Conservative Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, voted to advance a state civil unions bill that would recognize same-sex partnerships last week in large part because she had come to believe the legislature, not the ballot box, was the best place to weigh civil rights questions.

After joining the five Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee to cast the deciding vote Thursday, Nikkel told the Colorado Independent that witness testimony bolstered arguments made to her by supporters of the bill in private conversations.

“Testimony made me further believe that granting legal rights [for gay coupes] is the right thing to do– and that we should do it in the legislature,” she said.

“It’s worth putting the bill forward to be heard from all my colleagues who represent all of Colorado.”

Last year’s version of the bill died in the same Judiciary Committee when Nikkel voted with fellow Republicans as a bloc against it.

One of the main arguments made by Republicans against Senate Bill 2 this year like last year has been that Coloradans in 2006 voted for an amendment banning gay marriage and against a referendum that would have established same-sex civil unions. In voting to pass civil unions now, the argument goes, lawmakers would be improperly overriding the will of the people.

But one of the people Nikkel has been discussing the matter with over the last half year is Mario Nicolais, a prominent Republican attorney in the state and the spokesperson for Coloradans for Freedom, a pro-civil unions coalition of similarly high-profile Republicans.

Nicolais told the Colorado Independent at the hearing that he doesn’t buy the “will of the people” argument and that he spoke with Nikkel twice over the last six months about the bill.

“We talked on the phone about conservative ideas. We talked about the merits of a ballot initiative versus a statute,” he said, reaching into his attache case and pulling out a worn paperback copy of the Federalist Papers.

“Look,” he said pushing his finger along a dog-eared passage highlighted in yellow and blue. It was a section of Paper Number 10, written by James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” as Nicolais put it.

“[This passage] is about the difference between a representative republic and a direct democracy,” he said as people moved and spoke all around him in the crowded Old Supreme Court chambers. He began slowly reading aloud.

“The purpose of a republic… is to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.”

Nicolais looked up from the page and shook his head.

“It’s right there. This is about civil rights. It’s not something you decide through a series of 30-second campaign commercials. It’s something for a deliberative body to consider. We live in a representative republic.”

Brad Clark, executive director of gay rights group One Colorado, told the Independent that the lobbying efforts of Republicans in favor of the bill has made an enormous difference this year. He called the formation of Coloradans for Freedom a “game changer.”

“I think [the coalition] signaled to lawmakers that now is the time for this bill in Colorado,” he said.

Indeed, of all the witnesses testifying Thursday, many of them sharing moving personal stories, Nicolais made perhaps the most persuasive case by speaking directly and in detail to Republican concerns. He cited sources like Madison revered on the right and marshaled evidence of deep Republican support throughout the state.

He argued that it was a mistake to dismiss conservative support for civil unions as a product of western “live and let live” libertarian ideology. There are many traditionally conservative reasons to support the bill, he said, explaining that members of Coloradans for Freedom were acting out of fealty to conservative ideas about religious liberty, civil rights, limited government, family values and sound public policy.

The bill promotes committed adult relationships, he said, and, more important, in the case of separation, it legally binds same-sex parents to their children through child support and visitation provisions currently nonexistent in state law.

“Why do Republicans promote traditional families?” he asked the committee. “We do so for the benefit of the kids. This bill supports kids… So the question is Do we fight for couples who love each other or do we turn our backs on them?”

Nicolais noted that 1,477 Republican delegates, or 45.7 percent of the delegates at the party convention last month, voted to support civil unions as a plank of the party platform.

“These are the base of the Republican party, the true believers, the people walking the districts… That can not be ignored here,” he said.

The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate two weeks ago and it passed the House Finance Committee the day after it passed the Judiciary Committee. Yet the end of the legislative session on Wednesday is fast approaching.

The bill is scheduled to be heard by the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday morning. It reportedly has already won enough votes to pass that committee but only once it does can it be introduced for debate in the full chamber. Whether or not Republican leadership in the House will move the bill forward remains a matter of much speculation in the media and in the halls of the Capitol.

One Colorado is holding a rally on the steps of the Capitol Tuesday morning.

“The Colorado Civil Union Act has passed the Senate and two House Committees with bipartisan support,” wrote spokesman Jace Woodrum in a Monday release. “But with only two days until the end of the legislative session, Speaker of the House Frank McNulty is threatening inaction on the bill in order to kill it.”