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Wisconsin Puts Spotlight on GOP’s Social-Issues Agenda

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jun 3, 2011

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's name first came to the national forefront, it was due to the introduction of and subsequent outpouring of protests against his controversial "budget repair" bill. The measure slashed most public union employees' ability to collectively bargain. And it ignited an energetic movement comprised of many Wisconsinites calling for the recall of both their newly elected governor and many of the Republican lawmakers who supported his bill.

Walker's recent assertion that the state's domestic partner registry is unconstitutional has once again put the state's LGBT activists, who largely stood in solidarity with the pro-union protests earlier this year, on high alert.

Walker last month filed a motion asking to withdraw his defense of the domestic partner registry in a lawsuit the Wisconsin Family Action filed. Appling v. Doyle challenges the registry's constitutionality in relation to a statewide ban on marriage for same-sex couples that voters approved in 2006. Former Gov. Jim Doyle had previously defended the measure; but Walker appears to agree with the WFA's claim that the registry's allowance of hospital visitation rights, mutual end-of-life decisions and property inheritance too closely resembles a state-sanctioned marriage.

Though Walker has to date been painted as purely focused on economic issues related to the "budget repair" bill; his stance against the domestic partner registry disappointed, but did not necessarily surprise the state's LGBT activists. It is worth mentioning the registry actually generates revenue for cash-strapped Wisconsin because couples who wish to join it pay a fee.

Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, described Walker's record on LGBT-specific issues as weak. As Milwaukee County executive, Walker voted against a measure that would have allowed for a study into the possibility of the county providing domestic partner benefits to employees in same-sex relationships.

Lambda Legal has intervened on behalf of Fair Wisconsin to defend the registry. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has already dismissed the WFA's lawsuit once, but the organization re-filed it last year.

"This is a governor who is not afraid to take an unpopular stance and this is exactly what we'd all been preparing for and anticipating," Belanger told EDGE. "I feel that although he made an unfortunate decision, we're ready to make sure the registry remains in place as it is well within the confines of the 2006 constitutional amendment. We believe the court will decide in our favor."

Wisconsin Activists Are Not Alone
Activists across the country are also fighting to defend previous legislative advancements against Republicans who took control of their state's executive and legislative branches last fall.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels in March called for a "truce" on marriage equality, abortion and other social issues within the GOP; but the state Legislature ignored it and two weeks later approved a constitutional amendment barring both marriage and civil unions for same-sex couples. The Indiana General Assembly will have to pass the measure again in its next session before it can become a referendum question on the 2014 ballot.

Though Daniels is on the record as being opposed to both marriage equality and civil unions, he has not been as vocal against relationship recognition for same-sex couples as other Republican leaders.

Don Sherfick, vice president of Indiana Equality Action, indicated Daniels' lack of interference with marriage amendment-and his approval of cutting funding to the state's Planned Parenthood clinics-may have something to do with his potential presidential aspirations.

"The religious right here unfortunately has a lot of influence and exerts a lot of pressure for re-election related to this issue," said Sherfick. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of fairly conservative Republican legislators in both chambers currently who will tell you one thing off the record then go another way when it comes time to vote. In a sense, it's like being taken out to the woodshed."

A 2012 Conundrum
The pressure facing Republican lawmakers to appease social conservatives who have long been seen as a core GOP constituency while acknowledging increased public support for LGBT equality and moderate voters' concerns over jobs, taxes and other economic issues presents a conundrum-particularly for potential 2012 presidential candidates.

Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Campaign agreed that Republican leaders face a dilemma as they look towards next year's elections. "You have a right-wing base very interested in these social issues and pushing an anti-LGBT agenda, but then you also have the independent voters who are attracted to Republicans based on their economic messages in 2010 but have no appetite for the kind of divisive, anti-LGBT politics the far right is looking for," he said.

Cole-Schwartz also suggested the pressure lawmakers continue to face from the National Organization for Marriage and other anti-LGBT organizations that seek to roll back pro-equality protections may be even stronger today. A Gallup poll released last week showed for the first time that a majority of Americans support full marriage equality. A FiveThirtyEight analysis of public polling data last month also showed public support for LGBT equality continues to accelerate.

"[T]his does put Republicans in a tricky position," wrote Nate Silver. "Their traditional position on gay marriage is becoming less popular. But to the extent they disengage from the issue, they may lose even more ground."

HRC has certainly noted this trend as it looks towards 2012.

"The main part of the strategy is making sure anti-LGBT politicians do not get a free pass going forward and the way public opinion is changing, they will pay a price for it," said Cole-Schwartz. "We need to be calling them out."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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