Analysis: Cast of characters downs civil unions in Hawaii

Posted on 31 Mar 2009 at 1:38pm
By Mark Niesse Associated Press

18 of 25 senators said they supported civil unions but only six recorded ‘yes’ votes

HONOLULU — A complex mix of personalities, career ambitions and individual motivations led to the defeat of civil unions for gay couples in Hawaii.

In the end, it was a political soap opera, full of emotion, strong characters and plot twists.

Some of the reasons state senators voted to scrap the measure Wednesday, March 25 had more to do with politics than principle.

How else could 18 of 25 senators claim to support civil unions but only six record "yes" votes in public?

How else could the Senate’s two-man Republican minority come out the victor before a cheering crowd of civil union and gay marriage opponents in the Senate gallery?

Among the majority in the Democratic Senate that opposed holding a full Senate vote was Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-Nanakuli-Makua, who balks at the suggestion that she’s a puppet master controlling the direction of the entire Senate.

Hanabusa, who is considering a run for higher office next year, spoke little and ducked responsibility for the Senate’s action, claiming she simply supported the decision of her appointed committee leader. Her main role in the final debate was to keep senators from talking about the emotional issues of gay rights and stick to the dry parliamentary procedure of whether the full Senate should vote to override a Judiciary Committee decision.

The committee leader, Sen. Brian Taniguchi, flip-flopped and opposed the effort to bring the civil unions proposal to the Senate floor. Taniguchi, D-Moiliili-Manoa, originally indicated he would vote in favor of recalling the bill from his Judiciary Committee, but then changed his mind.

Gay rights advocates, who support civil unions as a way to help gain equality under the law, believe he was pressured by Hanabusa.

They see Taniguchi as the fall guy for other senators who became nervous about approving civil unions after more than 6,000 civil unions opponents poured into the Capitol’s volcanic crater-like rotunda last month. Hanabusa and most of the leaders of the Senate’s 14 committees backed Taniguchi and opted to support the normal lawmaking process over their pledges to approve civil unions.

On the other side was Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-Kauai-Niihau, who played the role of the idealist, saying he felt morally compelled to try to pass civil unions even though he knew he probably didn’t have enough votes. Fellow Democrats accused him of forcing the issue for political gain because he has already announced his intention to run for lieutenant governor.

Hooser’s effort fell flat with Hanabusa and Taniguchi against him. He argues that there was no political gain to be had in supporting a divisive issue like civil unions.

Meanwhile, amid the Senate Democrats’ insider politics, the body’s only two Republicans got the loudest applause from the anti-civil union crowd packed into the gallery.

Sen. Sam Slom, R-Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai, led the charge against equal benefits for gay couples, and he’s one of the few elected officeholders who can claim victory for his steadfast position on the issue, much to the chagrin of Democrats who suddenly found themselves in league with the GOP minority.

The Republicans upstairs in the governor’s office also notched a win.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona built his public profile as a strong voice against civil unions, a rare issue in which he wasn’t overshadowed by Gov. Linda Lingle, who sat on the sidelines refusing to comment on the issue.

Aiona faces a tough race for governor in 2010 against Democratic heavyweight U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who backed civil unions.

The clash over civil unions bubbled to the surface on the Senate floor following a series of coincidences set in motion more than two years ago.

Back then, the House Judiciary Committee decided not to vote on the measure because it didn’t have enough support.

That action mobilized the gay rights community to get organized and secure commitments from lawmakers for this year’s effort, when the bill spearheaded by new House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa, sailed through the House committee unanimously and passed the full House 33-17.

But when civil unions came to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the proposal stalled on a 3-3 tie vote — especially uncommon in a body where no committee has more than one Republican.

The three votes against it on the committee came from Democratic Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-Kalaeloa-Makakilo, a former Republican who was a leader in passing Hawaii’s first-in-the-nation "defense of marriage" constitutional amendment a decade ago; Democratic Sen. Robert Bunda, D-Kaena-Wahiawa-Pupukea, a Christian booted from leadership of the Senate by Hanabusa, and Slom, the committee’s lone Republican.

Hanabusa disputes the idea that the committee was intentionally stacked with civil union opponents before this year’s session started.

She said the tie vote, which isn’t usually enough to keep a bill advancing through the legislative process, only happened because freshman Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, D-Downtown-Waikiki, requested a transfer to the budget-making Ways and Means Committee.

Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee chairwoman Sen. Roz Baker, D-Honokohau-Makena, was one of the six senators who parted ways with the majority. She said civil unions are important enough to get a vote by the full Senate because the committee process didn’t work this time.

On the other side, Higher Education Committee chairwoman Sen. Jill Tokuda, D-Kaneohe-Kailua, spoke about her commitment to the system, even though it meant she had to make a "no" vote that would seem "cold and overly technical" to those who don’t understand why she wouldn’t seek a full Senate vote on an issue she supports.

While House Democrats easily mustered a majority to pass the civil unions bill, Senate Democrats were left looking weak, unable to find a way to pass a law that everyone thought they supported.

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