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May 16th, 2012 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

The 10-Year Engagement

President Obama has “evolved” to support gay marriage. Oregon isn’t there yet.

news3_obama_3828CIVIL UNION: Oregon gay-rights activist Terry Bean greets President Barack Obama in front of Air Force One on a Portland visit in October 2010. Then-candidate for governor John Kitzhaber looks on. Obama has also spoken at the Human Rights Campaign, which Bean co-founded. - Photo courtesy of Terry Bean
Before President Barack Obama declared his support for same-sex marriage last week, he had been talking with Terry Bean about the issue for four years. 

Bean, a Portland real-estate broker, is a national power player in advocating for gay and lesbian rights, and a Democratic Party fundraiser who befriended Obama in 2007. 

“He has the president’s ear,” says former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts.

Bean won’t take credit for Obama’s decision or discuss details of his recent conversations with him about same-sex marriage. “Just like the rest of America, he was evolving on this issue,” Bean says, “and thought it was time he told people where he’d evolved to.”

Gay-rights activists in Oregon are counting on the same kind of evolution among the state’s voters, who almost a decade ago banned same-sex marriage with a constitutional amendment.

Bean thinks voters are growing more comfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage—and gay-rights forces could put the question on the ballot again in two years. “It’s moving faster than anything I’ve ever seen,” he says. 

This year, two states, New York and Washington, became the fifth and sixth states to pass laws legalizing same-sex marriage, adding to the sense of political momentum behind the idea. National polls show more than 50 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage.

But in Oregon, only voters can change the state constitution. Voters passed the ban, Measure 36, by 57 to 43 percent in 2004. Voters are often reluctant to change their mind on ballot measures—even ones that aren’t so controversial. Plus, civil-rights advances are rarely made at the ballot box.

Polling numbers haven’t shown the kind of sea change same-sex marriage advocates had hoped for.

“Ultimately, we have to win a pretty challenging political fight,” says Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s largest gay-rights organization. “We are looking to move mountains in this state.”

And opponents of same-sex marriage will be waiting. 

“We don’t know if they will put it on the ballot in 2014,” says Teresa Harke, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Family Council, which founded the Defense of Marriage Coalition in 2004 to pass Measure 36. “We’re not sure if they even know. If they do, we will fight it, and we will fight it hard.”

Last November, Basic Rights Oregon announced that it would not pursue a ballot initiative this year to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban. The decision by the state’s largest gay-rights organization came after a three-year, six-figure media campaign. 

“Any time you have one side of a message going out, and the other side sitting by, you’re going to see a move in the polls,” Harke says. “If we had a ballot campaign, then you’ve got two sides.”

Frazzini says Basic Rights Oregon’s polling showed support for same-sex marriage spiked by 10 percentage points from March 2010 to November 2011. 

That same polling showed it wasn’t enough.

Basic Rights Oregon won’t release the results of its polling last fall, but three sources tell WW that the poll, conducted by Grove Insight, showed support for same-sex marriage statewide was between 46 and 49 percent. 

“It would have been a toss-up,” says Frazzini, who declined to confirm the actual numbers.

The close margin didn’t provide same-sex marriage advocates the kind of cushion they thought they needed. 

Basic Rights Oregon and its 31-member advisory group, including Bean, decided not to put same-sex marriage on the ballot after conducting 15 town-hall meetings in downstate cities from Tillamook to Pendleton. 

“Our community was very clear at every town hall: ‘We want to do this once, and we want to be done with it,’” Frazzini says. “The memory of what it felt like the day after Measure 36 passed is visceral.”

Harke says most voters aren’t interested in revisiting 2004. “A lot of people we’ve spoken to don’t feel it was that long ago, they already looked at this issue, and they already made a decision,” she says. “Why would we want to go through this again?”

Pollster Tim Hibbitts of DHM Research says the polling he’s seen shows the dial moving on same-sex marriage. “I do believe at some point it will pass,” he says, “and it won’t be 50-50. It will be decisive.”

Hibbitts notes that polling shows the strongest support among young voters—who will replace older voters who tend to resist the idea. “At some point, chronologically, those voters are going to pass from the scene,” he says.

But the chances of same-sex marriage in Oregon are still contingent on the shift in public opinion continuing.

“I don’t know that it’s inevitable,” the Oregon Family Council’s Harke says. “As a country, we’ve now been looking at this issue for close to 12 years now. The will of the people is still that we believe that marriage is separate and different and deserving of its own name. That’s 2012.” 

 
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