Vermont Elections Hinge On Civil Unions Issue

Two years ago, Marion Milne, a Vermont state legislator with two terms under her wing, was re-elected handily with the support of both Republicans and Democrats. Last year, the Vermont House of Representatives voted her “Legislator of the Year.”

Last month, Milne was defeated in a Republican primary — by a landslide.

The difference? Milne, a 65-year-old grandmother of seven, supported the passage this spring of the state’s controversial new law allowing gay couples to “marry” in civil unions.

“It was the toughest thing I have gone through in my political career,” Milne says. “There were a lot of people on all sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, men and women, searching deep inside themselves and trying to do the right thing. A lot of us felt good about the process, but we were all getting a very hard time at home.”

Milne may not be the only political casualty this fall.

Since the state passed the civil union law in April, giving same-sex couples essentially the same rights and benefits as married couples, Vermont has been at the center of a political — and increasingly emotional — debate over gay rights.

Incumbents Ousted Over Issue

In state primary elections last month, five Republican incumbents, including Milne, were ousted largely because of their support for civil unions. But voters also nominated Democratic state Auditor Edward Flanagan, the first openly gay candidate in the country to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate. He faces longtime Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Jeffords, who also supports civil unions.

As states around the country continue to debate the rights of same-sex couples to marry, Vermont will be watched closely to see how the civil union issue survives a voter backlash. Even at the state’s highest office, Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, who signed the law and has defended it, will face a challenger over the issue in Ruth Dwyer, an opponent of civil unions.

“This is the most watched race in Vermont in my memory,” says M. Dickie Drysdale, editor of the Herald, a weekly newspaper in Randolph. “It has been extremely divisive.”

There have been indications recently that the battle could get fierce.

The Vermont Defense of Marriage Political Action Committee, which opposes civil unions, has sent out fund-raising letters to about 12,800 households in hopes of raising thousands of dollars before next month’s election to help defeat candidates who support the unions.

But candidates on both side of the issue are questioning the tone of the appeal.

The effort, led by Pastor David Stertzbach of Williston, urges residents to work to “kick Howard Dean, Barbara Snelling [a state lawmaker] and other pro-civil union politicians out of office.”

Dean and Anthony Pollina, who is running for governor on the Progressive Party ticket, condemned the mailings as inappropriate. The campaign manager for Dwyer, the Republican candidate who opposes civil unions, also criticized the appeal for its negative tone.

‘Take Back Vermont’

Across Vermont the discord is evident. Bumper stickers, with messages like “Remember in November” and “Vermont. Keep It Civil” compete for attention. Black and white “Take Back Vermont” signs dot the otherwise pastoral landscape. Some opponents of civil unions say their signs have been defaced with pink triangles.

“It’s not a picturesque Vermont right now,” says Andrew Campbell of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force. “For the most part, it’s been OK. But every time an issue of civil rights moves forward there is always a backlash. We saw that with African-Americans in the ’60s. But that doesn’t stop us.”

Debate over the issue is perhaps most bitter in Orange County, a conservative enclave of 28,000 people in the liberal state. Milne, now running as an independent, another incumbent, Republican Phil Winters, who voted against the civil union law, and newcomers Sylvia Kennedy, a Republican against civil unions, and Bob Bland, an openly gay Democrat, will compete for two seats in the Legislature.

“Just being there means it makes it harder to vilify gay people in the election,” says Bland, 53, an environmental fund-raiser, who adds that he doesn’t expect to win.

What happens this November in Vermont could have an impact on states across the country considering gay rights and anti-gay rights legislation. While few states have proposed same-sex marriage laws, about a dozen states, including Colorado, Rhode Island and South Dakota, are considering bills that would define marriage as being only between one man and one woman.

A Difficult Decision

The debate started in earnest on a statewide level in late 1999 when the Vermont Supreme Court unanimously ordered the state Legislature to give same-sex couples all the legal “benefits and protections of marriage.”

The case originated in 1997, when three same-sex Vermont couples who had tried to get marriage licenses and were turned down filed a lawsuit against the state. The case eventually ended up in the state’s highest court, which ruled the state must give same-sex couples the same privileges as married couples.

Before she voted in favor of civil unions, Milne was a popular lawmaker and local business owner from Williamstown, known for remembering her constituents’ anniversaries with handwritten notes.

After the Supreme Court decision, Milne told her constituents she would listen to all arguments and study the court ruling before making her decision.

“I started getting a lot of phone calls,” Milne recalls. Many of them, she says, were not so pleasant. “I told them I was listening to all sides of the issue and keeping an open mind. Ultimately, I had to vote my conscience.”

Milne was one of 79 state lawmakers to support the civil union law. Another 68 voted against it.

The issue, says Milne, who makes a point of saying she has had a “traditional marriage” for 43 years, was simply about civil rights.

The Challenger

Sylvia Kennedy, a former friend, stepped in to help oust Milne from office. In the primary early last month, Kennedy won with more than double the number of votes Milne received. “She is a good girl and very kind-hearted,” says Kennedy, who has never held political office. But, she says, “I don’t think she used her best judgment.”

Kennedy, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, says she does not believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.

If elected, she says she would fight to repeal the current law — though she will consider supporting some rights and benefits for gay couples.

Kennedy says that she believes that many people in the district she hopes to represent are concerned that the civil union law has made “the gay lifestyle” more accepted in the state.

“I feel this is almost a mockery of marriage,” Kennedy says of the civil union law. “They publish the pictures of these couples in the newspapers. It just goes against everything we have been taught since the time we were children.”

If a number of Vermonters agree with Kennedy, a lot of politicians could be swept from office this November.