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Failure of Civil Unions Could Impact State House Races

Kirk Siegler

A statewide gay rights advocacy group wants to use the failure of a civil unions measure last legislative session to flip control at the Colorado statehouse.

Right now the Republican Party holds a one-seat majority in the House of Representatives. That is something Roger Sherman wants to change in November.

“Our mission is pretty straightforward. We have one and only aim and that’s to defeat anti-equity legislators.”

Sherman is with Fight Back Colorado, a group formed after the legislative session ended in May. The group has so far has raised nearly $120,000.00. Their plan is to target 2 to 3 competitive house races where the money can really make a difference.

“We are trying to be smart and methodical,” says Sherman.

To Sherman, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender community is especially upset over defeat of the bill. Their anger isn’t because of a lack of votes like last year, but because of a filibuster from the Republican Speaker of the House.

“It was an unfair use of the speaker’s powers it didn’t reflect his own party’s membership’s wishes.”

A handful of house Republicans planned on voting for the measure, but Speaker Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) recessed the chamber after Democrats tried to call up the bill. It was a dramatic end to the regular session with civil union supporters booing the speaker on the house floor.

For his part Speaker McNulty says he understands that emotions run high on the issue of civil unions.

“What happened, happened. It is unfortunate in my opinion that the Governor called a special session. But now we look forward to looking ahead to how we can make Colorado a better place to live, work and raise a family.”

Lawmakers in both parties acknowledge that voters in this fall’s election will likely be focused more on kitchen sink issues such as jobs and the economy than gay rights. That’s why Fight Back Colorado’s Roger Sherman says their campaign targeting GOP house members won’t center exclusively on civil unions.


“This isn’t about making a statement, it’s really about making a difference in electing a pro-equity legislator. We want to be considerate and thoughtful of who we select and use tactics.”

Speaker of the House Frank McNulty says it’s a shame to bring up other issues in the campaign.

“I hope that this social issue hasn’t just become a political issue for the Democrats, if that’s the case they’re doing an extreme disserve to the people who supported Senate Bill 2.”

Democrats say it’s not about politics. House minority leader Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver) was a main sponsor the civil unions bill. He’s one of four openly gay state lawmakers.

“Civil unions is about equality in our state. It’s about people who need the protections to take care of each other. It is an important piece of legislation that needs to move forward.”

It’s something that a handful of GOP lawmakers also agree on. Republican representative Cheri Gerou (R-Evergreen) is one of six Republicans who voted in favor of civil unions. But Gerou is the only one facing re-election, and she’s already received the endorsement of the GLBT group One Colorado.

“It was frustrating and it was painful and it was heartbreaking for me. When you know people that belong to a particular group and you understand that we’re all the same there’s nothing different about a parent wanting to be a good parent or a spouse wanting to be a good spouse.”

The conservative group Coloradans for Freedom has also been a strong advocate for civil unions and trying to bring more conservatives into the fold. Spokesman Mario Nicolais worries the bill’s failure will energize certain people to vote against Republicans, something his group wants to avoid.

“We were very concerned about that and how much money would be put into the campaigns and also people resources, time walking, time dialing the phones. Throw on top of that it’s not just the votes of gay men and women who may have this issue in their mind. It’s also their friends, brothers and sisters.”

Nicolais believes the state will eventually have civil unions no matter which party is in charge. There are about a dozen competitive races going into November. Democrats have said passing civil unions will be a top priority if they win back control of the House. And as time passes, the GOP may have less of a choice, since half the delegates at this year's state Republican convention voted to support civil unions and most voters favor them as well.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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