House Democrats still hoping to find a Republican sponsor for civil unions bill

The Colorado Statesman

A bill to establish civil unions still lacks a House sponsor nearly two months after passing out of a Senate committee, but that’s because Democrats shepherding the measure remain intent on finding a Republican to champion the legislation before sending it over to the GOP-controlled chamber, backers said this week.

The good news, said House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, who sponsored the bill in the House last year, is that “not all of them have said no yet. No one has said yes, but not all of them have said no.”

Since late last year, Ferrandino has said he’s hoping to wrangle a Republican’s name onto the bill to improve its chances of making it out of committee and onto the House floor, where supporters believe they have enough Republican votes to pass the bill over opposition from House GOP leaders.

Rep. Daniel Kagan

“We’re still in conversations with Republicans,” Ferrandino told the small group assembled by Rep. Daniel Kagan,

D-Cherry Hills Village, for a town meeting on the topic Friday afternoon at an Englewood restaurant.

“At the end of the day, if we cannot get a Republican sponsor, I will carry the bill,” he continued. “But our hope is we can find a Republican who is courageous enough to say, ‘I know this is right, I know this is right for our state and right politically, and I’ll be a leader on this.’ We’re hopeful of that.”

While none of the Republican House members sometimes labeled as potential swing votes told The Colorado Statesman they were willing to sponsor the bill, some — including two who sit on the Judiciary Committee, its likely first hurdle in the House — said they’re open to taking a fresh look at the legislation this year.

The bill’s fate isn’t in doubt in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Its sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, says he is confident the measure will pass by a margin at least as wide as it managed last year, when the chamber’s three Republican women senators — “I like to say, 20 percent of the Republicans, it sounds better when you say 20 percent of the Republicans,” quipped Ferrandino — sided with every Democrat to wave it on to the House.

Rep. Kathleen Conti

Since the bill passed in early February out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-2 vote — with Republican Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango voting with the committee’s four Democrats — it has been idling before a necessary hearing in that chamber’s Appropriations Committee, considered to be largely a formality.

Last year, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee killed the bill on a party-line vote following eight hours of often emotional testimony. Supporters included numerous same-sex couples, some pleading with lawmakers to grant them the same rights enjoyed by straight couples, while some opponents pointed to the state’s voter-approved constitutional ban on gay marriage and the failure of a 2006 ballot initiative that would have established domestic partnerships, a similar arrangement to civil unions.

Other opponents quoted Biblical verse and treated the House hearing as a chance to rake homosexuality over the coals, a turn that still angered Kagan more than a year later.

“You would be horrified to know what was endured,” he told supporters of the bill, “as witness after witness castigated, criticized, branded as immoral a certain group of citizens in the state of Colorado. The whole purpose of the hearing, it seemed to me, was for opponents of the bill to vent their spleen and air their prejudices against one group in a manner that was reminiscent of the McCarthy hearings.”

The question, he said, was whether Colorado residents are “treated with respect, dignity regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation, background or accent,” said Kagan in his distinctive British tones. “Whenever anyone in our society is treated less than well, with dignity and respect, that is an affront to everybody — that is a an affront to all of us.”

Kagan, who rebuked a witness at last year’s hearing using similar language, told civil union supporters that he was disappointed in the debate.

“That there is a time when people need to say, ‘Can we please have equality, can we please have our civil rights, can we please have an equal place in society,’ was, to me, heartbreaking. It’s going to happen again,” he predicted. “But we’re going to carry on.”

A potential advantage new this year, Ferrandino pointed out, was the creation of Coloradans for Freedom, a group of prominent Republicans lobbying in support of civil unions.

“In the building, this is a radical idea in the Republican Party. In the public, it is holding at roughly 70 percent approval,” Ferrandino told Kagan’s group, pointing to recent polling that the bill’s opponents nonetheless contend mischaracterizes the measure’s level of support. Still, Ferrandino argued, even though civil unions are backed by overwhelming majorities among Democrats and self-identified liberals, the notion is even favored by a majority across the ideological divide.

“Conservative, primary-voting people in the Republican Party support it at 60 percent,” he said. “There’s a lot of Republicans who are fearful that this is politically bad for them, and I agree with them — it is politically bad for them, but not in the same way that they think it is. They think they’ll lose their base; I think they’ll lose their base if they don’t vote for it, because the public outside is very much supportive of this, and it’s unfortunate the Legislature has not kept up with the public.”

In addition to attempts to recruit a Republican sponsor in the House, Ferrandino said the bill’s supporters have maintained a constant lobbying effort — including visits to lawmakers by parents of same-sex couples, organized by the One Colorado advocacy organization — to twist an arm or two on the Judiciary Committee. He called three of that body’s five Republicans persuadable swing votes, though one of the lawmakers named by Ferrandino disputed that characterization this week.

“I don’t know where that list came from or who assumed I would be a swing vote,” said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. “I voted no last year, and it’s my intent to continue to represent my district and vote no again this year.” Chuckling at the notion he might be open to changing his vote, he added, “It’d sure be pretty hard for me to swing other than a no.”

One of the other Republican Judiciary Committee members maintained she plans to keep an open mind but emphasized she hasn’t paid much attention to the bill yet, instead concentrating on the budget and legislation aimed at spurring job creation.

“I haven’t even read the bill,” said Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland. “I hear it’s the same bill brought back from last year, which I was a ‘no’ on. Once it gets on to the House, I’ll take a look at it, but I’ve been focused elsewhere.”
Ferrandino has suggested that Nikkel could be open to persuasion, in part, because she isn’t seeking another term this fall, but the Republican said that wasn’t a factor.

“I will do my best to give it a fair shake if it does come back to the same committee,” she said, noting that she’s been occupied with fiscal questions.

Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, the third Republican Judiciary Committee member targeted by Ferrandino, sounded most amenable to reconsidering last year’s vote.

“I was on the fence last year. I think a lot of these folks getting into relationships, they deserve to have the same protections,” he told The Statesman, adding that he was concerned with questions about hospital visitation and medical decisions, among other problems gay couples face. “In Colorado we allow same-sex couples to adopt kids,” he said. “Do they have the protections? That was one of the reasons I was kind of on the fence last year.”

Still, he noted, he hadn’t been familiar with the state’s designated beneficiaries law — sponsored by Steadman and Ferrandino, it allows unmarried couples to protect certain rights by filling out a contract — when the civil unions bill came before his committee last year. During the testimony, he said, he concluded that the 2009 law covered many of the concerns raised by civil union supporters.

After asking several of the witnesses about the designated beneficiary law, DelGrosso said he was surprised to learn that they hadn’t even heard of it.

“I felt a lot of those concerns could be addressed if they went the designated beneficiary route,” he said.
Nonetheless, though he has ruled out sponsoring the bill, he said his mind isn’t made up.

“Hey, this is why I voted no last year,” he said, “but I look at every year as something brand new. Just because I voted no last year doesn’t mean I’m voting no this year.”

One Republican said that opposition to the bill from her constituents means she’s unlikely to back the bill if it makes it to the full House.

“I am not certain, but I am not leaning in support, based on polling numbers I have done,” said Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, who noted that a poll she conducted through her website showed 59 percent opposed to civil unions and just 39 percent in support, with a handful of undecided respondents.

“I always try to be a representative of and for the people,” she said. “It truly did not poll well.”

She added that she had conducted some “informal polling in my new district, as I was calling precinct leaders, delegates and alternates, and did not have one single person in that group in support of it.”

Quite the contrary, Conti said.

“Most people are saying, ‘Why are we messing with this? We’re fiddling while Rome is burning. The focus needs to be on the economy, it needs to be on jobs. Why are you bringing these social issues before us?’”

Still, Ferrandino predicted it was just a matter of time, no matter what happens over the next month.

“If it fails this year, we will pass it next year,” he said. “And that’s regardless of who’s in the majority.”

On top of the usual turnover due to term limits and retirements in the Legislature, he noted, redrawn maps mean the House will have at least 24 new members next year.

“That will help them speed up to getting where the public is,” he said.