Gay-marriage stance dogs Hanabusa

05.13.13 | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

May 12–In December, when U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa applied for the appointment to replace the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, she told Democratic Party activists she supports marriage equality.

The congresswoman had previously said she always held that marriage should be between a man and a woman. She also had said the definition of marriage should be a matter for the states to decide.

But Hanabusa explained in December that marriage equality is a complicated issue that calls on people to re-examine deeply held values. She said that, like many in Hawaii and across the nation, time, experience and reflection had influenced her views.

“I support marriage equality,” she said in a statement to Democrats who had asked for her position. “It has taken the nation time to arrive at this point, but today I believe that our nation can no longer deny same-sex couples the rights and benefits of marriage.”

Hanabusa’s evolution places her in line with the Democratic Party’s platform, which favors marriage equality. It also puts her in harmony with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, who was appointed to replace Inouye and is her opponent next year in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Schatz has consistently supported marriage equality.

Her conversion, however, is a potentially sensitive issue for gay-rights activists and their allies in the party’s progressive wing. Progressives, along with environmentalists, have become among the most vocal about enforcing fidelity to the party’s platform. Marriage equality is a raw subject for many who believe that Democratic politicians have repeatedly let them down.

Gay-rights activists have filed complaints with the party against several state House and Senate Democrats who introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would have asked voters in November 2014 whether marriage in Hawaii should continue to be defined as between a man and a woman. The constitutional amendment failed at the Legislature, but the complaints are pending.

This summer the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, is constitutional. The court could also decide on California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage.

Depending on the scope of the court’s rulings, marriage equality could emerge as a political issue in the 2014 elections, when Hanabusa and Schatz clash in the primary to fill out the rest of Inouye’s six-year term, which runs through 2016.

A source close to Hanabusa said the congresswoman arrived at her position in favor of marriage equality before she was asked by Democrats in December, but that her statement was her first public announcement. She explained at the time that, like many Americans of her generation, she grew up with the assumption that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Hanabusa, 62, is now unequivocal.

“The time for marriage equality has definitely come,” she said in an interview this month when she announced her U.S. Senate campaign.

Hanabusa has called for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. She is also a co-sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, a proposed federal law that would recognize gay marriages validly licensed by the states.

She favored ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allowed gays to serve in the armed forces as long as they kept their sexual orientation hidden. The policy, approved under President Bill Clinton, was repealed in 2011.

Hanabusa, as the state Senate president, also helped draft a civil unions bill that was approved by the Senate and eventually became state law.

But as recently as last summer, as Hanabusa was campaigning for re-election in urban Honolulu’s 1st Congressional District, she had said the definition of marriage has always been a matter for the states to decide.

Last spring, after President Barack Obama announced that he supported marriage equality, completing his own evolution on the issue, Hanabusa had said she had always believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

Michael Golojuch Jr., chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered caucus, said Hanabusa had the ideal chance to disclose that she changed her position when she was running for re-election or when Obama made his own announcement. Instead, he said, her revelation did not come until December, when she wanted the appointment to fill the Inouye vacancy.

“It was like pulling teeth to get a statement from her at Christmastime when we were looking at replacing Senator Inouye,” he said.

Several gay-rights advocates also blame Hanabusa — who has sought to distinguish herself from Schatz based on her experience, including, among other things, the heavy lifting she often did on legislation in the state Senate — for the failure of a civil unions bill in the Senate in 2009.

The state House had approved a bill that would have allowed gay couples to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights as marriage under state law. Hanabusa and other Senate leaders initially indicated there were enough votes in the Senate for the bill, but that support wobbled after public protests from religious conservatives.

After the bill stalled in a divided Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee, Hanabusa and others suggested the bill could be pulled from the committee.

But Hanabusa, an attorney, also warned other senators that the bill would likely lead to a lawsuit by gay-rights advocates who would demand marriage equality, citing the successful legal challenge to a civil unions law in Connecticut.

At the last moment, as supporters finally got the bill to the Senate floor, Hanabusa and other Senate leaders engineered an amendment that expanded the legislation to also cover heterosexual couples. The amendment killed the bill as time ran out on the session.

The Senate, under Hanabusa’s leadership, did approve a civil unions bill that applied to both gay and heterosexual couples in 2010, legislation also passed by the House in a dramatic end-of-session vote before being vetoed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle. A similar bill was signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2011.

“From my historical perspective, Hanabusa was not our friend when it came to HB 444,” Golojuch said of the civil unions fight in 2009.

Others are more understanding.

Jo-Ann Adams, an attorney and gay-rights activist, said Hanabusa honored a promise to move a civil unions bill in 2010.

“I personally feel a lot closer to Colleen than many of the people in the caucus,” she said. “I personally support Colleen because she has always been someone who delivers what she says she will do.”

Adams said Hanabusa’s evolution on marriage equality is similar to how public opinion is shifting across the United States.

“I’m thrilled that her position is evolving. So is the whole nation. Everybody is evolving,” Adams said. “I’m delighted at how rapidly the whole nation is changing on this.”

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