Arizona voters become first in the country to vote down an anti-gay-marriage amendment referendum
Gays and lesbians across the country celebrated the Democrats’ sweeping victory in Tuesday’s midterm elections, and Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Wednesday that although not every new Democrat in Washington will be pro-LGBT rights, the shift in power in Congress bodes well for LGBT rights.
The election was also historical for the LGBT community as voters in Arizona made theirs the first state to defeat an anti-gay-marriage state constitutional amendment ballot initiative. However, gay marriage amendments passed in seven other states on Tuesday, including in Colorado where voters also defeated a ballot initiative that would have guaranteed some rights for same-sex couples.
“We came into this election cycle knowing that these would be tough, uphill battles in all eight states. Defeating the amendment in Arizona was a huge victory, and even though the other seven amendments passed, they passed by smaller margins than in the past. The amendment in South Dakota only passed by 4 percentage points,” Solmonese said.
He also noted that hype and hysteria that had surrounded such referenda in the past was missing in this election, indicating that gay marriage may no longer be as effective as a rallying point for social conservatives.
A ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court ordering state lawmakers to extend to same-sex couples the same rights and privileges of marriage that heterosexual couples have came just weeks before the election, prompting speculation that it would, once again, light the fire under social conservatives.
But that did not happen, Solmonese said, pointing to Democrats’ success in the Garden State on Tuesday.
“We were a little bit impatient on the marriage issue, but we have to look at the long term nature of civil and social change. Marriage equality will come, but it will take us at least a decade,” Solmonese said. It’s all part of the ebb and flow of social change. But the victory in Arizona is a small opening, a turning point, I believe, for us to enter the next phase of the fight, which will be pro-active. We are convinced we are heading in the right direction.”
The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which offers endorsements and financial backing to openly gay and lesbian candidates at all levels from local to federal, announced Wednesday that of the 88 candidates it was backing, 67 came away from the midterm elections with victories.
“This is the tipping point election for openly-gay candidates,” said Chuck Wolfe, president and CEO of the Victory Fund. “We’re proving that qualified, well-prepared candidates matched with committed donors means gays and lesbians can move from having a stake in policy to actually making policy. There’s no reason to sit on the sidelines with our fingers crossed anymore.”
Wolfe said that three states Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma elected their first-ever openly-gay state legislators this week. Gary Fitzsimmons, who beat a Republican incumbent to become Dallas County district clerk, was among the Victory Fund’s winning candidates.
And in Hawaii, Kim Coco Iwamoto became the first openly-transgender person in the United States elected to a state-level office when she won a seat on the state’s Board of Education, according to reports from the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Democrats now control both houses of Congress, picking up 29 seats in the House and six in the Senate. Democrats also now hold the governor’s office in a majority of states.
“Both chambers of Congress are now situated in such a way that we can say, I hope, that it is the end of an era of gay-bashing for political gain,” Solmonese said. “I knew, going in, that with Nancy Pelosi as the new Speaker of the House and other Democrats in leadership positions, we will never be debating the federal marriage amendment again on the floor of the Congress. And the dollars and resources and time that we would have had to spend in defeating that amendment once again are now freed up allowing us to engage Congress on things like the hate crimes law and the employment non-discrimination law.”
Solmonese said the Human Rights Campaign, which is a non-partisan organization advocating nationwide for gay rights, went into this election cycle with three priorities in terms of the U.S. Senate.
“The first and foremost was to help Bob Casey defeat Rick Santorum the Republican incumbent from Pennsylvania]. The second was to help Sherrod Brown defeat [incumbent Republican] Mike DeWine in Ohio, and the third was to get Amy Klobucher elected in Minnesota,” he said. “We pledged to mobilize our membership, to raise money into these campaigns and get these people elected and to make sure when they won they remembered who helped them get there.
“That’s exactly what we did, and all three of the candidates we backed won in those races.”
Santorum had been known as one of the most virulently anti-gay members of the Senate. Casey defeated him in part by campaigning as being on the conservative end of the Democratic spectrum; he is known as pro-life and pro-gun, two stances not usually associated with a gay-friendly candidate.
But Solmonese this week said Casey’s credential’s as a friend to the LGBT community are not in doubt.
“Bob Casey is pro-gay. I have had many conversations with him, and I know he is especially interested in moving the hate crimes legislation forward. He has a strong record of working to support the gay community in Pennsylvania. We are very excited about his win, and we feel we will have a great working relationship with him when he goes to the Senate,” Solmonese said.
He said big wins for the community in the House included Gabrielle Giffords’ victory in the district formerly held by openly-gay Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe in Arizona, Nick Lampson’s victory in the Texas district previously represented by Republican Rep. Tom DeLay and Ron Klein’s defeat of Republican Rep. Clay Shaw in Florida.
But Democrat Patricia Wetterling’s loss to Republican Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s House District 6 was a significant blow, Solmonese said.
“Michele Bachmann has the potential to be very dangerous for our community in Congress. She could be the new Rick Santorum on our issues,” he said. “She was virulently anti-gay when she was in the State Legislature. Hopefully she will be somewhat silenced by the fact that her party is in the minority.”
Solmonese said the challenge now for LGBT activists and their allies will be to take advantage of the gains made in 2006, and protect them in future elections.
“We have to protect our gains. We have to hold on to them now, and to make sure we help others of our friends up for election next time around,” he said. “And we have to sit down with the new leadership, at all levels, and figure out how to move forward from here.”
But Solmonese also warned against looking too far ahead: “It’s always important to let the dust settle from one election before you start on the next.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, November 10, 2006.