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Sexual Disorientation

The road to marriage equality is anything but straight

June 24, 2009, 12:00 am

Senate Bill 12 was an 11-page document that had been prefiled by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, more than a month before the session began. It was essentially the same as the 2007 version that had passed through the House twice, granting domestic partners the same rights and responsibilities as married couples.

That was not the bill that came up for a vote.

At 3:40 pm on Feb. 26, packets of pink paper were circulated to the senators. This “floor substitute,” crafted in the wee hours, eliminated all three uses of the word “spouse” and five mentions of the word “marriage” as a concession to the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops. In exchange, McSorley expected the bishops to issue a letter changing their position from opposed to neutral.

For exactly one hour, the Senate argued the bill somewhat blindly; only a handful of individuals had even known of the new version’s existence prior to debate. The live bloggers in the press gallery barely had time to upload the document to the web before the vote was called.

Seventeen in favor to 25 in opposition. Do not pass.

“I am too upset to be here anymore sorry,” blogger Barb Wold typed from her home in Albuquerque into the Santa Fe Reporter/New Mexico Independent live online discussion. “[T]hese people are cruel and don’t deserve to be called Democrats any longer.”

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By Dave Maass

Democratic activist MaryEllen Broderick helped add gay marriage to the state party’s platform.

Elsewhere in Albuquerque, Broderick sat in her office watching online in shock.

“My hopes were up that we had the votes, that it was going to pass, that we were going to win,” she says. “For it to go down in flames was like a knife.”

Even those who had haunted the halls and the gallery all day were taken by surprise. Perls, who had fielded questions on the floor, could only describe feeling “badly.” Rosen, who was counting votes in the gallery, said she was “hugely disappointed.”

“I was surprised at the final tally,” Councilor Bushee, who had been sitting beside Rosen, learning to Tweet, says. “I knew there had been some changes with regards to the Catholic Church…but I don’t believe they would’ve brought it forward if they didn’t have the votes.”

But that’s exactly what did happen. Siegle and McSorley knew the bill was going down.

“We knew that once we did not have the letter, we were done; we were toast,” Siegle says. “I stayed up half the night beforehand. I thought we had a deal and then it all fell apart. I was pretty upset.”

According to New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbyist Allen Sanchez, although the substitute removed the words “spouse” and “marriage,” it did not omit references to Chapter 40 of the state statutes—the chapter dealing with marriage—which was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

“I think the bishops were hopeful that people could find the protections they needed and not have to change marriage,” Sanchez says. “But the bishops are firm that if it refers to either marriage or Chapter 40, it will be opposed.”
As to why the bill went for a vote when the support had crumbled, Siegle says that’s just what one does when running a bill.

“Part of what changes people’s minds is they know that every year we will go back until we get this, and every year they’re going to have to be on the record,” Siegle says.

The initial strategy had been to file early and bull-rush the bill through the Senate before the opposition had a chance to organize, McSorley says. That plan, however, did not account for Sen. Timothy Jennings, D-Chavez, a conservative Democrat, holding on to his leadership role as Senate president pro tempore.

As a result, a conservative coalition was able to stall the bill in committee for six weeks, while opponents of the bill waged a war of phone, email and in-person bombardment.

Meanwhile, LGBT rights lobbyists lacked the cohesiveness of prior sessions. In previous years, Siegle ran the show with support from American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico lobbyist Diane Wood. Other lobbyists, such as former Republican legislator Joseph Thompson, represented EQNM with funds donated by the Gill Action Fund, a Colorado-based gay-rights organization. This time, however, Gill decided to hire Thompson as its own lobbyist.

“The [lobbyists] were not on the same page,” McSorley says. “Behind the scenes there was a huge amount of discord. The Gill Action Fund made promises of support from the business community and from various legislators that never

Michael Huerta, a gay Democratic activist who observed the domestic partnership negotiations while advocating for realtors, says national groups, like Gill and the Human Rights Campaign, muddied the message.

“There was a lot of confusion,” Huerta says. “While I value the expertise of HRC and the resources of Gill…that was my biggest surprise: People from outside of New Mexico who didn’t understand New Mexico were trying to message New Mexicans on a very controversial issue.”

Gill released a statement to SFR saying it supported EQNM’s strategy on the domestic partnership bill, but would not comment on the other criticisms. Thompson would not answer questions without his client’s permission.

“I trust Joe Thompson implicitly,” Siegle says. “I work with Joe, but he was in a really awkward position.”

Nevertheless, both Siegle and McSorley insist the final vote tally did not represent the actual support in the Senate. They claim a couple of legislators had said they would vote for the bill if they were sure it was going to pass and Cisneros only switched his vote because, under Senate parliamentary rules, doing so would allow him to bring the bill to the floor again if the bishops later changed their position.

Ultimately, though, it may be that the evangelical and Catholic church’s mass mobilization just outmatched the LGBT lobby’s efforts, Siegle says.

“We don’t have the ability to generate 3,000 people coming up to the Legislature and hanging out,” Siegle says. “We still got a lot of attendance, and a lot of people called and emailed, but if it’s a numbers game, we never win on the numbers. We don’t have the pulpits of the church to generate thousands of calls and visits.”

Which is why communication is key.

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