Supporters of civil unions pumped up at ‘uncivil soiree’

The Colorado Statesman

When supporters of a civil unions bill — defeated once in the waning days of the legislature and again during a brief special session — gathered to take stock in Denver last week, organizers weren’t sure what term to use on the invitations.

“We didn’t know what to call it,” said Brad Clark, executive director of the One Colorado advocacy group, the primary outside advocacy group backing the bill. “Is this a celebration? Is it group therapy? We thought an ‘uncivil soiree’ would be fitting.”

So that’s what took place last Wednesday on the grounds of the Grant-Humphreys Mansion, as roughly 100 lawmakers, lobbyists, donors and volunteers got together on a warm summer evening.

Lawyer Ted Trimpa makes a point to lobbyists Will Coyne and Adam Eichberg of Headwaters Strategies and Christine Scanlan, a former state legislator working as the governor’s Director of Legislative Affairs, at a party for supporters of a civil unions bill on May 31 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I’ve been handed defeat at the State Capitol over and over again,” said the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver. “It happened again this year, and I’m OK with that, because I am positive that for every setback we experience, we are going to move forward with even more vigor and more power, and I feel it happening this year.”

“We’re getting there really quickly,” says Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, one of the sponsors of a civil unions bill that died in the Republican-controlled House, at a party for supporters of the bill on May 31 in Denver, alongside the bill’s other prime sponsor, Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate with the support of three Republicans but then floundered in the Republican-controlled House on the next-to-last night of the regular session. Despite the proposal having passed three House committees with the support of GOP lawmakers, House leadership refused to allow debate on the legislation, taking down 30 other bills with it following a tense standoff that ground proceedings to a halt. It died again on the first day of a special session called by Gov. John Hickenlooper after House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, assigned the bill to a “kill committee,” where members voted along party lines.

House District 28 candidate Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, and state Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, mingle at One Colorado’s “Uncivil Soiree” on May 31.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Clark read a letter from Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, whose vote in favor of the measure in the House Judiciary Committee set the dominos in motion.

“I want you to know that I’m proud to have helped move the bill forward by supporting it in the Judiciary Committee and even beyond that point. It was the right thing to do, and I believe it put me on the right side of legislative history in Colorado,” she wrote.

Nikkel, who isn’t running for reelection, sounded a note of optimism.

Republican civil unions supporters Alexander Hornaday, president of Colorado Log Cabin Republicans and treasurer of the Denver County GOP, Joe Megyesy, former spokesman for state House Republicans and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, and attorney Mario Nicolais, spokesman of the GOP group Coloradans for Freedom, talk about the impact of the civil unions bill on the fall election at One Colorado’s “Uncivil Soiree” on May 31 at the Grant-Humphreys Mansion in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I think you should know that there are actually a lot of Republicans who support the concept of civil unions, so I hope that my vote will help encourage more to be unafraid to stand up for what is right,” she wrote.

“Although I am still rather sad about the disappointing fate of the bill, which I believe was going to pass, the important thing to remember is that this will move ahead. Change is difficult for some people, so that means sometimes we must change things incrementally, one vote at a time. In looking ahead, I am confident that the bill will pass very soon, and although I won’t be in the legislature when it does, believe me, I will be celebrating with you when it does.”

Promising a celebration that will be anything but “quiet” if the bill passes next year, the House sponsor, Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said that the bill’s backers “need to take this defeat and turn it into a victory,” and predicted that the issue could prove decisive in the fall election.

“Next year, when we get sworn in on Jan. 9, we need to make sure there’s a speaker of the House who’s not going to thwart the democratic process, who’s not going to undermine democracy, who’s going to allow the will of the majority in that chamber to be heard on every bill, including civil unions,” he said.

He went on to dismiss suggestions that Democrats were intent on scoring political points by letting the bill die in spectacular fashion.

Near the end of the session, Ferrandino said, plenty of people approached him to say, "You wanted this to die, you wanted the political win, you did this all for politics."

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice welling with emotion. “I look at all of you, I look at families, my partner and I, are in the process of adopting — that is the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard. There are families who need this — now. I want the policy.”

“But,” he continued after a dramatic pause, “if they weren’t going to give us the policy, we were going to make sure that everyone knew what was going to happen. What happened that night, we weren’t going to let them put it under the rug and be quiet, we were going to make sure it was loud, and that’s what we did. I think we got a political victory — unfortunately, I’d rather have had the policy victory.”

A prominent Republican supporter of the bill joked that he agreed with Ferrandino, to a point.

Elections law attorney Mario Nicolais, the spokesman for the Republican organization dubbed Coloradans for Freedom, planted his tongue firmly in cheek. “Mark was right, we all know exactly who we want to see as speaker next year, Cheri Gerou,” he said, naming the Evergreen Republican who cast the deciding vote for the civil unions bill in the House Appropriations Committee.

On a more serious note, Nicolais said his group plans to support civil unions at the ballot box by backing Republicans who can change the face of the caucus, not by ousting McNulty.

“Things change year to year,” Nicolais said. “Our group has come out and showed that Republicans can support this. Maybe next year we can change the speaker’s mind as well.”

Republican attorney Alexander Hornaday, a member of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the group was establishing a small-donor committee to support GOP candidates who would vote for civil unions and fully expects to keep the House majority.

“It’ll just be a better majority,” he said.

He added that he remains hopeful that a more civil-unions friendly caucus could yield a different result next year.

“On 95 percent of the issues, I think Frank has done a good job, but on this issue, we’re on opposite sides, and I’m going to continue to work to change his mind — I’m not going to say I’m going to fight him on it, but I’m going to work to persuade him to come around to our side.”

Steadman recounted his 20-year history — “I feel like I’m kind of a tired old warhorse,” he cracked — pushing for gay rights, starting with the campaign against Colorado’s Amendment 2, a ballot measure approved by voters in 1992 that restricted governments in the state from granting rights to gay residents.

“The polls told us Amendment 2 was going to fail, and yet our fellow Coloradans went into the privacy of the voting booth and they pulled the lever to deny us our rights and to ascribe us second-class citizenship,” he said. Steadman was part of the legal team that challenged the initiative, eventually leading to the U.S. Supreme Court overturning it in the high court’s first significant ruling on gay rights.

“The sense civil unions are inevitable and marriage equality is going to sweep the nation is really powerful,” he said, ticking off a raft of legislative victories over the past six years, including the adoption of hate crimes legislation, protection from employment discrimination, a second-parent adoption law, discrimination protections in public accommodations, and the creation of designated beneficiaries.

“The rate at which we’re making progress, and the progress we have experienced this year, make me convinced that it’s not far off that civil unions will be reality in Colorado,” he said.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com