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CAMPAIGN 2000

Voters Oust 5 Who Backed Vt. Civil Union Law

Politics: Republicans all, they fall victim in primary election to a backlash against same-sex domestic partnerships. But deep divisions remain.

September 14, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — In a clear expression of backlash against the nation's first same-sex domestic partnership law, five incumbent Republicans who supported Vermont's civil union legislation were defeated Tuesday in that state's primary.

The five were among nine legislative candidates targeted by conservative political and religious groups specifically for their support of a measure that legalizes gay marriage in everything but the name.

But deep division in Vermont also was apparent as voters sent the state's first openly gay candidate, Democrat Edward Flanagan, to the U.S. Senate race.

The outpouring of emotion about civil unions surprised many.

"I knew there were strong feelings, but I didn't realize they were quite that strong," said Rep. Marion Milne of Washington, Vt., who lost her Republican primary slot to a onetime friend, Sylvia Kennedy, who bitterly opposed civil unions.

Opponents to the new law had launched a well-organized campaign that included posting "Take back Vermont" signs in frontyards across the state.

Voter drives boosted registration rolls in some towns by 5% to 10% in recent weeks. Juanita Claflin, the town clerk in Topsham--where the list of voters grew by 5%--said, "A lot of it is civil unions. People are getting fed up with the representation that they've been getting--or not getting."

Led by the Rev. David Sterzbach, the Vermont Defense of Marriage Committee circulated fliers in the final days before the primary urging voters to choose "pro-family" candidates. Leaders of another anti-gay marriage group, Take It to the People, hailed Tuesday's primary vote as "a pretty good barometer" of sentiments in the state.

"Vermonters think marriage shouldn't be messed with," said Michele Cummings, the group's president.

While opponents handed out "Remember in November" bumper stickers, supporters of civil unions retaliated with stickers that read, "Vermont. Keep it civil."

All the rancor turned the primary campaign ugly, said Bill Lippert, the state's only openly gay legislator. Lippert, a Democrat, served on the Vermont House judiciary committee that produced the civil union legislation last spring after months of often anguished hearings.

"I'm deeply disappointed that some Republicans who were in my view heroic in their willingness to do what's right for civil rights for gay and lesbian couples in fact lost their political seats in a backlash that was really directed primarily at the gay and lesbian community," Lippert said Wednesday.

The issue is expected to loom large again in November when Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, who signed the civil union bill into law, faces tough opposition from former state legislator Ruth Dwyer, an outspoken foe of civil unions.

Dwyer, a Republican, handily defeated William Meub, a moderate, in the primary.

"The biggest issue is listening to Vermonters," she told supporters in Montpelier on Tuesday. "The people control their own state. We want to give it back to them."

Dean, who defeated Dwyer to win his fourth full term in office in 1998, has said he anticipates a "knockdown, drag-out campaign" in the general election.

In their first chance to demonstrate their views on civil unions at the polls, Vermont voters showed mixed feelings.

The main author of the civil union law, Republican state Rep. Tom Little, withstood his primary challenge.

Among Democrats, several incumbent legislators who supported the law fended off stiff challenges. One Democrat who voted against legalizing civil unions was defeated by an opponent who said he would have supported the measure.

Three Republicans and one Democrat who were targeted by anti-civil union groups managed to hold on to their seats. The five Republicans who were defeated included popular state Sen. Peter Brownell, former mayor of Burlington.

Three-term Rep. Milne said she knew when she voted in favor of more than 300 domestic partnership benefits for gays and lesbians last spring that it might lead to her defeat. But she said she was unprepared for the lost business at her travel agency, the friends who stopped speaking to her or the anti-gay slurs directed at her 13-year-old grandson as he gathered signatures for her reelection campaign.

In a letter published in a weekly newspaper in her district, Milne said the "hurtful, very uncivil" reaction of some voters was distressing.

"To some," she wrote, "there is no discussion possible."

Kennedy, the onetime friend who defeated her, said Milne got what she deserved.

"I just feel that voting her conscience was uncalled for," Kennedy said.

About civil unions, Kennedy said, "As a Christian, I've been brought up to believe it is an immoral issue. It isn't a civil right."

U.S. Sen. James M. Jeffords--a Republican who is running against Flanagan, the state auditor--said he was troubled by the political venom in his state.

"It bothers me that Vermonters are reacting that way," he said.

Rep. Little said that the fact that same-sex partnership emerged as the driving force in Tuesday's primary shows just how divided his state remains on the issue.

"This is probably something that's going to take a generation to resolve," Little said.

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