Timing Is Seen As Key in D.C., Vt. Votes on Gay Marriage

By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 9, 2009

D.C. Council member David A. Catania and Peter Shumlin, president pro tempore of the Vermont Senate, met at Sarducci's restaurant in Montpelier two weeks ago and discussed gay marriage legislation in their jurisdictions.

In movements such as the decades-long fight for gay rights, there are orchestrated moments, and there are moments of opportunity. The story of Catania (I-At Large) and Shumlin (D) and the news made this week in their jurisdictions may fall somewhere in between. The two men have been talking about pushing gay marriage since they met seven years ago.

On Tuesday, the District and Vermont delivered a one-two punch that, combined with the recent Iowa Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage, has buoyed supporters and angered opponents.

Vermont legislators overrode Republican Gov. Jim Douglas's veto of a gay marriage bill, making the state the fourth in the country to legalize same-sex nuptials.

The D.C. Council unanimously approved legislation that would recognize the nuptials of gay couples performed in other states, paving the way for a District gay marriage law, which Catania plans to introduce this year.

Catania, Shumlin and other advocates said that Tuesday's actions hinged on one factor: timing.

"Frankly, the barrier in the past was a Republican-controlled Congress and White House," said Catania, who is gay and quit the GOP in 2004 when President George W. Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "In November, a fantastic thing happened."

The nation's capital, where local laws are subject to congressional approval, could be the ultimate litmus test. But others say they worry that the city's action could force congressional leaders to weigh in on the issue.

Former U.S. representative Tom Davis (R) of Virginia said the District's efforts to get voting rights in Congress, which he supports, could be hurt by the push for gay marriage.

Three years ago, Davis said, he urged then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Catania to hold off on a gay marriage debate to avoid battling Congress.

"But now, I think they think they are on a roll," Davis said, "and there is such a large constituency for it in the District that feels quite strongly about it."

In December, Catania began meeting with a dozen local and national advocates to discuss drafting a bill that would legalize gay marriage. He said he had hoped to introduce a measure in January, but he and others agreed that the timing was still off because of the District's renewed push for voting rights.

Catania said he saw a window to begin his legislative push.

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a longtime supporter of gay rights, had authored legislation that would recognize gay couples married in other states as domestic partners, a legal status in the District. Over the last week, Catania and Mendelson quietly began talking about changing the legislation to recognize the couples as "married."

It was a way to set the stage for the full right to marriage legislation, Catania said -- and to test the waters in Congress.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she does not see the measure passed Tuesday being derailed in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Norton's opinion comes despite conservatives' recent success in attaching a provision to the D.C. voting rights bill that would limit the city's gun regulations. Social conservatives who might push against the marriage proposal, Norton said, have far less influence with Democrats in Congress than the NRA, which pushed Democrats from rural districts on the gun amendment for the D.C. vote bill.

But some religious organizations are beginning to speak out. The Archdiocese of Washington issued a statement Tuesday urging "elected officials to respect the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman."

Delric Pollins, pastor of Greater Word Church in Northeast Washington, said, "If this debate heats up, you will have people forming groups. . . . The problem is, we have taken, to me, a theological argument into a government perspective."

The D.C. Council's action, made in an amendment, gave little room for debate on the measure, which will get a final vote May 5.

Catania said his move on Tuesday was not coordinated with Vermont's, but he and Shumlin have strong ties.

Catania is chairman of the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices, a group of legislators co-founded by Shumlin that advocates for lower drug prices. Catania was in Montpelier for a meeting of the group in March when he and Shumlin discussed gay marriage. Shumlin was explaining his strategy for the impending veto.

Catania said he was inspired by Shumlin and lobbyists in Vermont.

"To have that energy was invigorating," said Catania.

Shumlin had been down the gay marriage road before. In 2000, he pushed for a bill in a bitter fight that ended with Vermont's becoming the first state to grant civil union status to gay and lesbian couples.

Referring to those days, Shumlin said, "I made a political decision, not a moral decision, that none of us would be back in office if we passed a marriage bill at that time." The political climate for Vermont legislators was different on Tuesday, the same day Catania made his push in the District.

Mendelson and Catania spoke to Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) about the "married" language. Then they worked on other legislators.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), who has opposed gay marriage but said she has an open mind, said Mendelson talked to her just before the meeting. Then, Catania talked to her on the dais.

"He said, 'This is about equality and justice. I said, 'Okay, I can't argue against that push,' " she said.

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