TV & Radio
Stop pretending that voters have spoken on civil unions
Although Oregonians shut out marriage for gays, they left the door open for other options
Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Gubernatorial candidates are expected to have some grasp, however dim, of what Oregonians think. Even if candidates cannot intuit or channel the majority's view with any precision, it's fair for them to try, or to make a wild guess.
What's not fair is to make a wild guess while pretending, sanctimoniously, to be in direct communication with the heart and mind of Oregon. But that pretty much sums up the approach of the three Republican candidates for governor on civil unions.
At a recent debate, candidates Kevin Mannix, Ron Saxton and Jason Atkinson sounded strangely similar on this issue, as if they had just stepped out of an echo chamber or were replaying an old script. Had they been governor, all three said firmly that they wouldn't have signed a bill to create civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
The trio echoed not only each other, but also those Oregon House Republicans who squashed the chance to debate civil unions last year, saying voters had already disposed of this issue. Arguing about civil unions, or merely to say the words, apparently is, as Mannix put it during the debate, "disrespectful to our voters."
Nonsense. What's disrespectful is to assume you know what voters would do, even though they haven't done it or even had a chance to do it. In 2004, Oregon voters approved Measure 36, explicitly banning same-sex marriage. It said nothing whatsoever about civil unions.
In enticing support for Measure 36, in fact, backers went out of their way to reassure voters, again and again, that the ban wouldn't apply to civil unions or other options to protect gay and lesbian families. "Oregon's measure was written specifically not to address civil unions," one Measure 36 backer told the Bend Bulletin.
After winning approval of Measure 36, however, backers began invoking a winner-take-all interpretation of the new law. They began saying the "spirit" of the measure somehow extended to banning civil unions, too.
A civil union does duplicate most of the legal and economic protections of marriage for same-sex couples, but it isn't portable across state lines, it doesn't confer eligibility for federal benefits and it avoids the name "marriage." In Oregon, as in Vermont, it could be a middle path through a polarizing issue.
It's only a guess, of course, but there's every reason to think this compromise might well suit fair-minded Oregonians. What's strange about this debate is that, unlike some candidates, voters aren't stuck in the script of 2004. Their opposition to same-sex marriage is even melting.
Although 51 percent of Americans continue to oppose it, that's down from 63 percent two years ago. Even more significantly, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that even older voters and Republicans are now less opposed to the idea. Oregon hearts and minds are doubtless changing, too, and many would embrace, or at least carefully consider, a middle way.
Maybe the Republican gubernatorial candidates haven't heard the news. That's what happens when you're stuck with an old script and campaigning in an echo chamber.