Hawaii governor may shape legacy with civil union decision
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer
A week after historic civil unions legislation landed on her desk, the governor has indicated she's in no hurry to make a call on the hotly debated bill whose fate, regardless of where she comes down on the measure, will mark a key moment in her gubernatorial career.
Instead, Gov. Linda Lingle said she's inviting comments, consulting religious, legal and other leaders, and scheduling sit-down meetings with people on each side of the civil unions debate over the next six weeks.
"I think the consultation mode will last for quite a while," Lingle said. "The passion is running very high. I want to hear everybody out."
Though eager for the governor's decision on the bill, supporters and opponents of civil unions are also happy for the chance to make their case and have vowed to keep the pressure on Lingle as she makes up her mind on whether to veto the measure, sign it or allow it to become law without her signature.
She has until July 6 to decide, but must provide lawmakers with a potential list of vetoes on some 200 pending bills by June 21.
Civil union supporters and opponents alike have applauded the outgoing Republican governor for her handling of the issue so far, saying they appreciate her interest in hearing arguments on both sides and keeping an open mind. And political observers say the governor appears genuinely undecided on what is one of the most controversial bills of recent years.
"I think she's sincerely tried by the question," said Dan Boylan, a University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu professor and longtime political commentator. Boylan added, "This is a very big and crucial moment for her, not just as a governor on her way out, but as a politician who has considered herself more open and moderate (than other members of her party). Governors are supposed to think about legacies, too. I'm not sure that's on her mind."
Neal Milner, a University of Hawai'i-Mānoa political science professor, agreed the governor probably isn't thinking about her legacy as she weighs the civil union vote, but he said she undoubtedly recognizes that her decision could come back to haunt her with partisans on either side of the debate if she chooses to pursue another elective office.
He also said her "rationalist," weigh-all-sides approach to the issue might end up backfiring in the end.
"Anything she does is going to be very controversial," Milner said, adding that, "What she's doing now is acting as if talking to both sides is going to work this out and it just isn't."
The governor told reporters last week that it was important she give the public ample opportunity to "express themselves" on the civil unions bill and acknowledged she won't be able to please everyone. "Regardless of my decision, I think it will be divisive," Lingle said.
That's evident in the continued pressure she's getting from thousands of residents on each side of the debate. Last week, calls and e-mails continued to pour into the governor's office from people weighing in on the issue. Since the House passed the bill April 29, the governor's office has received some 6,062 calls, faxes, e-mails and letters on the issue.
A spokesman said about 63 percent of people who commented were against it.
The rest supported the bill.
Meanwhile, as they prepare for sit-downs with the governor, probably this month, supporters and opponents of civil unions are examining her record on the issue and crafting their arguments for why HB 444 should become law or why it should be thrown out.
The measure, which would give same-sex and heterosexual couples the ability to enter civil unions and enjoy the same rights as married couples under the law, was by far the most controversial issue facing lawmakers at the outset of the legislative session and spurred some of the biggest rallies of the year.
But the debate died down after the House, focusing on the state's fiscal woes, indefinitely postponed action on the bill after the Senate passed it in January. On the last day of the session, the House voted 31-20 to approve the bill.
Lingle has not said where she stands on the civil-unions bill, and previously urged lawmakers to not take up civil unions this session and instead focus on economic recovery.
But supporters are quick to point out that before becoming governor, Lingle said she would not veto a civil unions bill if it came across her desk. In an interview with KHON in 2002, which is making rounds in e-mails to supporters, Lingle said that if the Legislature passed a "domestic partnerships bill, I would let it become law; I would not oppose it."
Asked about the interview last week, Lingle said she would have to reread it.
She also said she hadn't yet read the civil unions bill, which positions Hawai'i as potentially the sixth state in the nation to offer domestic partnerships or civil unions that grant equal spousal rights to same-sex couples. Currently, Hawai'i and three other states provide more limited spousal rights. And five states have legalized same-sex marriage.
The governor has said she wants to meet with various groups on the bill, but hasn't outlined the format of those meetings. Several groups have already put in formal requests for meetings with the governor to discuss the issue. Groups on each side say they want to bring in a cross section of the community to those sit-downs in an effort to show broad support.
In making their case to the governor, opponents say they'll stress that the civil unions measure was passed in an 11th-hour vote by the House on the final day of the session. They'll also argue the bill is flawed and that the public wasn't given enough time to sound off on it.
Opponents have also said civil unions are functionally the same as same-sex marriage, something Lingle has said she doesn't support. And they'll point out that the opposition goes beyond religious groups, and that those against civil unions come from diverse backgrounds.
"It's not just the Christians or the religious community" against the bill, said Dennis Arakaki, executive director of the Hawai'i Family Forum and Hawai'i Catholic Conference.
Arakaki, a leader in the opposition to civil unions, said he and others will make the argument to the governor that residents were "deceived" by the last-minute vote on civil unions. "To wait until the last day and the last hour to pass a bill of really historical proportions, it's really not in the best interest of the people," Arakaki said.
But supporters of civil unions say the public had plenty of chances to sound off on the measure, and that it went through the proper public hearing process. They also say the civil unions bill isn't about redefining marriage but about creating an alternative for same-sex couples who want to recognize their relationships and receive the benefits of marriage .
Alan Spector, legislative affairs co-chairman for Equality Hawai'i, which supports civil unions, said he's not buying the argument that opponents didn't have enough time to speak out on the bill since it went through public hearings in 2009 and again this legislative session.
He also said that opponents shouldn't have been surprised that it was revived.
Of the governor, he said, "I trust she believes in equality. I think she's a fair-minded woman." He added that his group will try to convince the governor there is widespread support for civil unions.
"They're (opponents) merging the two issues by trying to claim this is gay marriage, when it's not," he said. "The civil union is a legal status. It's a new creation."