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Colorado Same-Sex Union Fight Shows Presidential Risks

May 11, 2012

A rally in support of  the civil-unions bill on March 31, 2011 at the state Capitol in Denver. Photographer: Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/AP Photo

A rally in support of the civil-unions bill on March 31, 2011 at the state Capitol in Denver. Photographer: Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/AP Photo

Lawmakers in Colorado are girding for a fight next week over a bill that would allow civil unions for same-sex couples in a special legislative session Republicans say is motivated by presidential election-year politics.

Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, called the session the day after Republicans in the state House of Representatives used a parliamentary maneuver to kill the legislation, as President Barack Obama went on the record for the first time as supporting legalization of gay marriage.

“I suspect it’s not coincidence the governor had President Obama’s top Colorado political operatives shuttling in and out of his office,” Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said during a press conference yesterday. “It could be more than coincidence that the president came out in favor of gay marriage and then only hours later Hickenlooper announced a special session.”

While Hickenlooper denied that, the remarks set the tone for a politically charged clash next week at a time that Obama’s support of gay marriage and the approval of a constitutional amendment banning it in North Carolina illustrate both the importance of the issue in electoral politics and its risks.

Hickenlooper’s special session may be aimed at motivating voters who could help swing Colorado, a battleground state Obama carried in 2008, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1992, said Eric Sondermann, a Denver- based independent political analyst.

‘More Risk’

“I think there was more risk to not doing this than there was to doing it,” Sondermann said. “If you look at the swing voters in this state, they are not gays and lesbians. They are not social conservatives voting Republican. They tend to be more female than male, are congregated in the Denver suburbs and their views on civil unions are evolving quickly.”

The measure, which would have permitted gay and lesbian couples to inherit one another’s property and take family leave and make medical end-of-life decisions for a partner, passed three House committees before being derailed on the Republican- controlled House floor.

Hickenlooper scheduled the special session starting May 14 to consider legislation focusing on seven issues, including civil unions, water projects, unemployment and driving while under the influence of marijuana. All those bills died when McNulty called a recess as the legislative session wound down on May 8, pushing consideration past a midnight deadline.

‘Bipartisan Support’

“Much of this legislation has significant bipartisan support and addressed subject matter crucial to the people of Colorado,” said Hickenlooper in a statement yesterday. “The ramifications of the General Assembly’s inability to take up the business of its people will negatively impact the State of Colorado and hamper its ability to serve its people.”

The civil union debate pits Hickenlooper, a microbrewery and restaurant owner turned politician who is popular among the state’s business leaders, against Republican House Speaker McNulty, a conservative Catholic from the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch.

When asked about McNulty’s assertion that his special session is motivated by presidential politics, Hickenlooper broke out in laughter and said neither he nor his staff had spoken with Obama recently.

The debate also reflects the divided views of the Colorado population. Democratic voters largely live in Denver and surrounding areas, while Republicans dominate the southern region near Colorado Springs and most rural parts of the state.

Intense Lobbying

Lobbying remained fierce on both sides of the issue yesterday, with supporters and opponents flooding McNulty’s office with phone calls and e-mails.

One Colorado, a Denver-based organization representing 25,000 gay and lesbians statewide, garnered 3,000 signatures on a petition asking McNulty to give “civil unions a fair hearing” less than 24 hours after Hickenlooper announced the special session, said Jace Woodrum, deputy director.

The group also raised $12,000 after it sent out an e-mail May 8 informing its members that the civil union bill died in the House without being heard.

“We’ve never raised so much with one e-mail and we’ve never gotten so many petition signatures with one e-mail,” Woodrum said. “We’ve never seen as much energy as we have now. They’re hurt that Speaker McNulty played politics with their families.”

Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based Christian organization, worked with Colorado Family Action and the Colorado Catholic Conference to deliver 70,000 postcards to state legislators in opposition to the bill.

‘Stepping Stone’

“We oppose the civil unions bill,” said Carrie Gordon Earll, a Focus on the Family spokeswoman. “It is a stepping stone to same-sex marriage.”

The special session process requires legislators to introduce new bills and to debate them again in committee before bringing them to the floor if they’re approved.

As House Speaker, McNulty can change the composition of his chamber’s committees and determine which committees hear which bills. He said yesterday that reordering the committees “is something we’re going to take a look at.”

House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, a Democrat, expressed concern that the civil union measure will meet the same fate in the special session as during the regular session.

“I hope the Speaker will do the right thing and not kill it by stacking a committee,” Ferrandino said in a press conference yesterday. “At the end of the day we have the same leadership we had in the House and if they are bent on killing it they will kill it.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jennifer Oldham in Denver at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeffrey Taylor at

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