D.C.'s GOP wants debate on marriage to stay local

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 5, 2009; B01

As the debate over legalizing same-sex marriage shifts from city hall to Capitol Hill, Republican leaders in the District are forging an unusual alliance with gay rights activists, hoping to prevent a national fight over the issue.

Robert J. Kabel, the chairman of the D.C. Republican Committee, and Patrick Mara, a rising star in the local GOP, have begun urging party members in Congress not to oppose the D.C. Council's bill to allow gay couples to marry in the District.

The efforts by Kabel, who is gay, and Mara, who is straight, underscore the division over same-sex marriage between many of the city's 30,000 registered Republicans and the national party leadership.

"D.C. Republicans as a whole, for the most part, are live-and-let-live," said Mara, a same-sex marriage supporter who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat last year. "Since they live in an urban area, they don't really care what goes on in someone's home."

The D.C. Republican Committee has a long-standing commitment to gay rights, partly because of its membership, which includes many gay men who came to the city to work in government. But party leaders tread carefully to avoid fracturing a local party that struggles for relevance in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

"When we have an opportunity for success, I will jump right in and fight for things," said Betsy W. Werronen, the Republican national committeewoman from the District, who declined to state her views on same-sex marriage. "But it's just not anything I am jumping into, because everyone has their own view."

As the same-sex marriage question spreads across the country, the efforts by Kabel and Mara reflect a broader debate within the GOP, especially in the Northeast and West, where members from urban and rural areas often reach different conclusions.

After the defeat of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election, the campaign's chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, and McCain's daughter Meghan called on the national GOP to embrace same-sex marriage to slow the party's decline among suburbanites. But conservatives rebelled this fall when Republicans nominated Dierdre Scozzafava, who supports same-sex marriage, to run in a special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District. Some prominent Republicans came out in support of the Conservative Party candidate, and Scozzafava dropped out of the race a few days before the election. A Democrat ended up winning the seat.

And gay rights leaders were crushed Wednesday when they failed to win over a single Republican in the New York Senate, which voted against legalizing same-sex marriage.

That decision came one day after the D.C. Council, which has no GOP members, voted 11 to 2 to legalize same-sex marriage. In two weeks, the council is scheduled to take a final vote on the bill. If approved, the measure is subject to congressional review for 30 legislative days before it can become law.

Local gay rights activists say they are confident that Democratic leaders in Congress will help protect the bill. But the level of GOP opposition in the House and Senate remains murky, which is why Mara and Kabel have begun arranging meetings on Capitol Hill with GOP lawmakers.

"We are going to meet and encourage Republicans to just stay out of it," said Kabel, the only openly gay state-level GOP chairman in the country. "Our basic discussion point is, even though this is a federal city, we do have home rule and an elected mayor and council, so just let this process run its course."

Kabel and Mara's efforts are being noticed on the national stage. "The actions that Bob Kabel and Patrick Mara have taken are really at the forefront of what Republican officials have done," said Christian Berle, chief Washington lobbyist for the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gay political activists.

Berle has compiled a list of 59 elected GOP officials nationwide who have endorsed same-sex marriage, including several state legislators in New Hampshire, where same-sex marriages are to begin next month.

But Kabel and Mara face a tough sell on Capitol Hill. No sitting GOP senators or House members support same-sex marriage, Berle said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), ranking member of the House subcommittee that has oversight of the District, said in an interview that he won't be swayed by Kabel and Mara's lobbying efforts.

"There may be a handful of them," Chaffetz said, referring to D.C. Republicans who support same-sex marriage. "But there also a lot of Democrats in favor of traditional marriage, and that is pretty compelling."

Peter Rosenstein, founder of Campaign for All D.C. Families, which asked for Kabel and Mara's help, said they have to persuade only a few GOP members.

"There may be a number of Republicans who agree this should be left up to the states," Rosenstein said.

A spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee declined to comment, referring a reporter to the party platform, which calls for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

There are limits to how far the D.C. Republican Committee is willing to wade into the fight. The D.C. Democratic State Committee approved a resolution this spring endorsing same-sex marriage, but the local GOP committee chose not to take a formal position.

"We have some traditional Catholic members, and some of them said: 'Please, we don't want to vote on this. We know this is important to you and others, but we would rather not be on the record,' " Kabel recalled.

Margaret Melady, a vice chair of the local GOP committee, refused to state a personal opinion on same-sex marriage. But Melady, whose husband, Thomas, served as ambassador to the Vatican under then-President George H.W. Bush said: "We decided, as a committee, not to get involved in this issue, primarily because there were differing opinions on the committee, but if people wanted to speak out personally they were free to do that."

In the District, Republicans have a record of bucking the national party on same-sex marriage. The sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), was elected to the council as a Republican in 1997. But Catania, one of two gay council members, left the party in 2004 when then-President George W. Bush advocated a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

That same year, the D.C. Republican Committee changed its party platform to oppose a constitutional amendment, the only state-level party to take that position, local GOP leaders said.

"We are not Texas," said Paul Craney, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee.

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