Pro-civil unions Republicans want to rebrand party image

The Colorado Statesman

A group of Republicans who support civil unions are pressing GOP lawmakers to back a bill to establish them in Colorado before the party permanently brands itself among younger voters as intolerant.

That was one message expressed on Monday afternoon at a Coloradans for Freedom gathering at the Colt & Gray restaurant in Denver. The group met to toast this session’s near certain passage of Senate Bill 11 and make a case that it isn’t too late for state Republicans to get on board — though some warned that the deadline is looming.

“That’s a fear of a lot of us who really support this issue,” said Michael Carr, a gay Republican and the party’s unsuccessful nominee for a Senate seat in Denver last year. “We are afraid that our party can be stigmatized for years to come if they vote on the wrong side of this legislation. Our challenge right now is not only to pass the bill but to make sure we’re on the right side of history.”

Coloradans for Freedom board members Laura Leprino and Mario Nicolais greet Republican supporters of civil unions at a get-together on Jan. 28 at Denver’s Colt & Gray restaurant.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

He said he was disappointed that Colorado Republicans were dragging their feet on the issue compared to GOP lawmakers in heavily Republican Wyoming, where a legislative committee earlier that day passed a civil unions bill with strong Republican support.

Republican Dustin Chase, former state Senate candidate Michael Carr and George Gramer, president of the Colorado Log Cabin Republicans, talk politics at a happy hour thrown on Jan. 28 by Coloradans for Freedom, a group of Republicans supporting civil unions, at Colt & Gray restaurant in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We have to figure out ways to win statewide races, we have to figure out ways to bring people into the party, and this is a non-issue for most people who are up-and-comers in this party,” he said, adding that just about anyone under the age of 40 doesn’t understand why it’s even a question.

Sarah Arnold and Alexander Hornaday survey the crowd at a gathering of Coloradans for Freedom, a group of Republicans who back civil unions, on Jan. 28 at Colt & Gray restaurant in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Businesses — and the business wing of the Republican Party — are leading the way by granting benefits to same-sex couples, said prominent GOP attorney Mario Nicolais, one of the founders of Coloradans for Freedom.

“The policies of our state are behind some of these businesses, and that’s a problem for them, it makes them uncompetitive,” he said. “This is the way businesses act — we don’t get involved in our employees’ personal lives, but we want to be sure they’re happy employees.”

Lobbyist Benjamin Waters, communications maven Joe Megysy and state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, discuss the prospects for civil unions legislation at a happy hour for Coloradans for Freedom, a group of Republicans who back the proposal, on Jan. 28 at Colt & Gray in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Calling it a “missed opportunity” for Republicans, Nicolais said he hoped that at least some of this year’s crop of rookie legislators would support the bill, though he declined to predict whether any would.

“Equal rights is a powerful Republican principle, and I do hope we will see more Republicans who will be fighting for that principle,” he said, adding, “It’s not a question of changing principles, it’s a question of getting back to principles that empower individuals and empower communities.”

With Democrats in the majority in both legislative chambers and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper a vocal proponent of the civil unions bill, the question isn’t whether civil unions will pass this year — the bill’s backers expect it to become law by early March and for same-sex couples to be able to form civil unions by early May — but only how many Republicans intend to sign on.

The civil unions bill passed out of a Democratic-controlled Senate com-mittee last week on a party-line vote.

For the first time — it’s the third year a version of civil unions legislation has been introduced — the bill has a Republican co-sponsor in the House, state Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, though two Republicans who supported the bill in the Senate during its previous two outings are no longer in office.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, the lone remaining Senate Republican who has voted for the bill in previous years, said that it’s important to frame the argument as something other than just a bid for electoral advantage.

“What’s really important for us as Republicans is to send the message out that this is not at all about winning — though that could be the end result, as we appear to be coming into more mainstream thought — but what this is about is property rights, it’s about family values, and it’s about individual freedom and liberty,” Roberts said, noting that as an estate attorney she’s had a hand in legislation affecting same-sex couples for years.

Roberts said she’ll likely add her name as a co-sponsor to the bill after it takes its final form in the Senate. She dismissed objections that have been raised by some Republicans and other bill opponents that its current incarnation encroaches on freedom of religion by removing an exemption for church-based adoption and child-placement agencies. (The bill’s chief Senate sponsor, state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said last week that he removed the clause because he didn’t want to enshrine discrimination in statute and noted that the exemption didn’t win over any votes last year, in any case.)

“I am concerned about things like religious liberty,” Roberts said. “I am satisfied with the Senate version. Catholic Charities didn’t like it last year, they’re not going to like it this year, they’re not going to like it 10 years from now, so that’s not a big concern. But I do want to be respectful of people of all types and all thought processes.” She concluded: “As a Republican, I believe in limited government. I’ve never understood how we’ve ended up in the place that we’ve been on these issues.”

Republicans at the pro-civil unions gathering lamented the tone of an anti-civil unions rally held three days earlier at the Capitol.

At last Friday’s Protect and Support Marriage Rally, organized by the Colorado Catholic Conference and attended by some 200 protesters, speakers on the West Steps warned that civil unions differs from “gay marriage” in name only and amounts to “bigotry” against religious institutions. Others said the bill contradicts a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage approved by Colorado voters in 2006 and challenged civil unions proponents to take the question to the ballot box.

But it was a message delivered by former state Sen. Ed Jones, R-Colorado Springs, that had Republican civil unions supporters shaking their head. Jones’ speech — similar to testimony he delivered last year and the year before when the civil unions bill was heard in committees — said it was wrong to compare gay rights with the civil rights movement. He reminisced about watching the Ku Klux Klan march in his town when he was young and said he never saw a water fountain marked “Gays only.”

Jones also ripped a photograph that appeared in an issue of The Colorado Statesman earlier this month that pictured incoming House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and his partner, Greg Wertsch, referred to as “his wife Eric” by Jones. “This is so wrong,” he added.

“Ed Jones apparently didn’t get Gov. Bobby Jindal’s message — the Republican Party has to stop being the ‘party of stupid,’ and personally insulting the family members of the speaker of the House qualifies as extremely stupid,” said Nicolais, shaking his head.

“People that disagree with gay equality have a place in the national debate, but attacking people personally is not going to accomplish their goal,” Carr said.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com