Supporters, opponents agree issue likely to motivate voters on both sides

Herbert A. Sample | Associated Press Writer

HONOLULU — John Smith has long voted for Republicans, including Gov. Linda Lingle’s two gubernatorial bids. However, the 73-year-old retiree said he’s about done with the GOP after Lingle’s veto of a same-sex civil unions measure last week.

“Maybe it’s emotion, but I’m approaching that stage,” said Smith, the father of a lesbian. “I think it’s such a violation. I’ve had it with the Republicans.”

Smith may be an anomaly, but he is one face of the potential ramifications Lingle’s veto and the lingering civil unions issue may have on Hawaii’s politics.

Those consequences could take many forms. For example, Democrats and independents who oppose civil unions may be drawn to GOP Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, who hopes to succeed Lingle in November.

Aiona, a fervent Christian with conservative positions on social issues, is calling for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, a proposal that faces huge hurdles in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Still, civil unions could become a hot topic in the gubernatorial and a handful of legislative contests this fall. Activists on both sides insist residents who care about the issue will be galvanized to vote in November.

“Invariably, I think it will have some impact … at the polls,” said Francis Oda, chairman of Hawaii Family Forum, a conservative group that opposed the legislation.

Alan Spector, who is as passionately supportive of civil unions as Oda is against it, agrees.

“Clearly, I think what the governor did is going to motivate a lot of people on both sides,” said Spector of the gay rights group Equality Hawaii.

The contentious civil unions bill divided generally liberal, tourism-dependent Hawaii like no other topic in some time. The last time a social issue was felt at the polls here was more than a decade ago, when a half-dozen legislators were ousted at least in part due to their support for gay marriage.

A year ago, Oda’s group and several Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders started “The 80/80 Vision,” an effort to convince 80 percent of Christian churchgoers to register to vote. Oda said that effort has largely succeeded, and the next step is to nudge them to the polls in November.

The state Republican Party hopes those voters will back GOP candidates.

Party chairman Jonah Kaauwai last week criticized Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mufi Hannemann for avoiding a clear answer on whether he would have signed or vetoed the measure, even though Hannemann spoke at an anti-civil unions rally in January.

Hannemann, the mayor of Honolulu, has said he opposes gay marriage but he and his aides has steadfastly avoided stating whether he would have signed or vetoed the civil unions legislation.

His Democratic rival, former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, unhesitatingly said he would have signed the legislation. Last week, he won the endorsement of the state Democratic Party’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Caucus.

While economy, education, taxes and other issues may eventually be the focus of the gubernatorial candidates, civil unions may play a bigger role in a few legislative districts.

The most prominent example could turn out to be the Sept. 18 Democratic primary between five-term incumbent Rep. Blake Oshiro, the chief sponsor of the bill, and Honolulu Councilman Gary Okino, who strongly opposes it.

“It’s easy for people to focus on kinda hot-button issues, but my purpose is actually to fix the Legislature,” said Okino, whose campaign will focus more on adopting term limits for lawmakers and shifting to a unicameral legislature.

Oshiro said he’s hopeful that voters will look at the larger picture and the bigger issues that affect their daily lives, like the economy, education and jobs.

“But I am a realist, and for certain people, this issue is a litmus test,” he said.