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Marriage Vote: The Right Side of History


Published March 23, 2009 at 10:30 p.m.

At the end of the day, there was a visible, if not collective, sigh of relief from many Vermont senators after backing a same-sex marriage bill by a 26-4 vote.

"It's your bill now," said a happy Sen. Richard Sears (D-Bennington), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to his House counterpart Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg). Sears was surrounded by fellow senators and supporters of the measure, all congratulating the Bennington County Democrat for shepherding the bill through the Senate.

The outcome of the hourlong debate was never really in question, only the margin of victory. And, in the end only four senators didn't vote to support the measure: Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans), Sen. Hull Maynard (R-Rutland) and Sen. Robert Starr (D-Essex/Orleans).

These four were expected to vote against the measure, however several other colleagues were question-marks going into the vote, including freshman Matt Choate (D-Caledonia/Orange), veteran Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Chittenden/Grand Isle), Sen. Bill Doyle (R-Washington) and Sen. Phil Scott (R-Washington). In the end, they voted in favor.

Mazza said after the vote that, as a Catholic, he spent several days weighing whether to support same-sex marriage. In the end, as he did nine years ago during the civil unions debate, he found himself on the winning side of history. He even sought counsel from the same priest.

Being on "the right side of history" was a phrase repeated often in the halls of the statehouse today from Democrats and Republicans alike. From the Burlington Free Press' editorial reversing course and supporting same-sex marriage (they opposed civil unions as former editorial page writer Stephen Kiernan notes here) to the lack of anger and public frustration, it was a different stage, a different setting than the civil unions debate of nine years ago.

Senators will take one final procedural vote tomorrow to officially send the bill to the House. The House Judiciary Committee expects to immediately start taking testimony. Floor debate is likely to take place April 2 and 3.

While the 26-4 margin in the Senate is enough to override a gubernatorial veto, in the House such a margin is not expected. The House would need at least 100 votes in support of the bill, a number that even proponents see as unlikely. Democrats in Franklin and Rutland counties as well as parts of the Northeast Kingdom are feeling pressure from constituents and are unlikely to support it.

However, a number of Republicans have come out in support of the measure, including Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), who is the GOP minority leader.

"The bipartisan nature of today's vote means that we can move away from this issue being a Republican versus Democrat debate," said Beth Robinson, of Vermont Freedom to Marry. Robinson commended Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) for his support of the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee. That panel sent the bill to the Senate floor with a 5-0 vote of support.

Mullin did try to amend the bill and send the entire measure out to a statewide referendum. That failed by a 19-11 margin.

About 50 onlookers, mostly supporters, crowded into the Senate chamber, listening quietly as many senators stood to urge their colleague to support the bill.

Sens. Brock and Maynard were the only two who stood up and vocally opposed the measure. Brock said he, like Pres. Barack Obama, Vice Pres. Joe Biden, and Gov. Jim Douglas believed marriage was between a "man and a woman" and that civil unions afforded gays and lesbians equal treatment under the law. 

Sen. Maynard said he was voting against the bill for all of those who believed the issue had not yet had a full public airing and debate.

Sen. John Campbell (D-Windsor), the key sponsor of the Senate version, tossed aside eight pages of notes to "speak from the heart" in an effort to urge his colleagues to support the bill.

Campbell said marriage needed to be inclusive, and into its fold brought people who were committed to upholding the rights and responsibilities of marriage, as well as the love it takes to make it work.

He took offense at some opponents labeling gays and lesbians "those people."

"You know who those they people are? They are ourpolicemen. They are our firefighters. They're teachers; they're garbagemen;they're the guy who plows the street," said Campbell. "They are our children, our sisters, ourbrothers. That's what they are. They are human beings and as such and as it'ssaid in this bill they should be treated equally."

While that brought plenty of nods and smiles from supporters, the speech that brought several onlookers to tears, however, was President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham). After reminding colleagues that civil unions was created in response to vocal outrage to same-sex marriage bill nine years ago, he said he found it hard to look his gay and lesbian neighbors in the eye as they dropped off their kids together at school.

"I was basically saying that my marriage had more value than their relationship," said Shumlin.

As to the argument that the bill was being rushed, Shumlin took on opponents directly, noting that when
the majority confers rights to the minority, it's easy to say that it's being rushed or that more testimony is needed.

"It's never speedy to confer rights to those who simply want to say 'I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you,'" said Shumlin.

That simple summation of the bill's essence brought tears to the eyes of several onlookers in the upper gallery (where I was stationed), and some audible sobs.

Moments later the Senate took its vote. And, the rest as they say, is history.