The Politics of Gay Marriage

Despite a historic ruling, the candidates for governor aren't likely to make same-sex unions a campaign issue— unless they have to.

On Wednesday, Aug. 4, King County Superior Court Judge William Downing boldly extended civil rights by declaring gay marriage legal in Washington state. Downing's decision, which is on hold pending review by the state Supreme Court, is of historic proportions. It knocks down a huge barrier to the equal rights of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Washingtonians.

Inadvertently, Judge Downing also dropped a hot potato in the lap of every candidate running for office in this huge election year. Gay marriage is an issue that sharply polarizes Washington's electorate.

According to a March 2004 poll by The Seattle Times, just over 50 percent of Washingtonians oppose gay marriage, while 44 percent favor it—significantly less opposition than in national polling on the subject. The poll also found a majority of Washingtonians support civil unions for same-sex couples that would be equivalent to marriage in all but name. Predictably most Republicans oppose gay marriage, while most Democrats support it.

State Attorney General Christine Gregoire, who is the Democrats' gubernatorial front-runner, won't comment on same-sex unions at this time since, as attorney general, she'll have to defend the state's Defense of Marriage Act in court. But in March 2004, The Seattle Times had her on record as opposing gay marriage. Her argument supporting her position to the Times makes matters worse: "I do not believe that Washington state is ready to support gay marriage."

That statement epitomizes what frustrates many Democrats and Republicans about Gregoire's candidacy: an unwillingness to take clear stands, preferring instead to make vague centrist-sounding pronouncements. "She should run a tape recorder on any issue: 'I don't think we're ready for that,'" says Moxie Media's John Wyble, a Democratic political consultant.

In contrast, King County Executive Ron Sims, Gregoire's chief Democratic opponent in September's primary, has chosen to take real political risks by showing strong leadership on the issue. As the head of a county government that issues marriage licenses, Sims found himself in the position of being obligated to uphold a law that he opposes. Rather than directly defy the law and issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, he and advocacy groups cooked up an ingenuous approach. The groups who challenged the law came up with "ideal" plaintiffs—same-sex couples in long-term, committed relationships, some with children—who would apply for marriage licenses, be denied, and then have grounds to challenge in court the state's law prohibiting gay marriage. That tactic has worked. Last week after Downing's ruling, Sims issued a press release that said, "[T]his is another step on the continuum of this country's ongoing struggle for civil and human rights." The statement is doubly gutsy for the state's leading black elected official because it so clearly connects the struggles for African Americans' and gay and lesbians' freedom—a comparison that remains controversial.

Sims' approach is politically consistent with his strategy for the Democratic primary. Known for his moderate, New Democrat behavior in office, Sims has tacked hard to the left in an apparent effort to appeal to the liberal wing of the state's Democratic voters—most notably with his advocacy of a state income tax.

In September, Washington will have its first partisan primary in 69 years, where voters will be forced to choose candidates from only one party's slate. Most political observers believe that the voters most likely to participate in such an election will be the most partisan, those who closely identify with the Democratic or the Republican party.

"The dice that Ron Sims is rolling is it's the progressives that matter in the Democratic primary," says consultant Wyble.

Sims' campaign manager, Tim Hatley, says the county exec's stand on gay marriage may be helpful. "It can be a bit of a wedge with us and our primary opponent. We're thinking it through right now."

Of course, the Republicans would love nothing more than to campaign in the general election against a Democrat from Seattle who is running statewide on a platform that is pro–income tax and pro–gay marriage.

The GOP's leading gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi opposes gay marriage, voted for the state's Defense of Marriage Act, and supports a federal constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. This latter position, like much of Rossi's very conservative social agenda, puts him at odds with most Washington voters. According to the Times' poll, 55 percent of Washingtonians oppose a constitutional amendment on the issue.

But Rossi's campaign is smart enough to change the subject when gay marriage comes up. Spokesperson Mary Lane lays out Rossi's position succinctly, with no emotional paeans to the sanctity of marriage or fierce condemnations of activist judges; instead she moves right along. "Dino Rossi believes marriage is between a man and a woman. He's not running on it this year. It's not going to be a major issue in this race," Lane says. The topic Rossi prefers to emphasize is the economy. "People are out of work; businesses are leaving the state; we have health care issues." Rossi wants to change the direction of state government, says Lane, in order to improve the state's business climate.

Since Rossi does not have any real opposition in the Republican primary, he doesn't have to appeal to his conservative base. Instead he's wooing the state's center. Rossi recognizes that conservative Republicans have lost in this state because they are out of step with our socially tolerant ways. By brushing over topics like gay marriage, he hopes to control the campaign's discourse. If Rossi does face Sims in the general election, Republicans will no doubt try to paint the county executive as the extremist in the race. If Gregoire wins the Democratic primary, then both candidates will likely try to avoid the subject.

Since the electoral climate doesn't offer much hope for the promotion of equal rights, hopefully the state Supreme Court will uphold Judge Downing's ruling, making it politically impossible for the state to continue its legacy of discrimination. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the earliest they expect a decision is next summer.

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