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Portman’s Support for Gay Marriage a Political Evolution

U.S. Senator Rob Portman
U.S. Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, speaks at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, voicing support for same-sex marriage with a personal note that his son is gay, joins a bipartisan movement toward a recognition of rights that many Americans are embracing.

“I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married,” Portman wrote in a commentary published yesterday in the Columbus Dispatch.

Portman, 57, joins some within his own party, notably former Vice President Dick Cheney, in speaking to an issue from the heart -- Cheney has a daughter who is gay.

Leaders in both parties, most prominently President Barack Obama, have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and woman, and to reinstate a constitutional amendment for gay marriage in California. The court will hear arguments on March 26 and 27.

“I’m glad Senator Portman has joined the growing majority of Americans who support full civil rights for our gay and lesbian family, friends and neighbors,” said fellow Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, in a statement yesterday.

Ian James, co-founder of FreedomOhio, said in a statement that Portman is “the first Republican member of the United States Senate to endorse the freedom to marry, but we believe he will not be the last.”

Ohio Support

While some Republicans may oppose Portman because of his announcement, it shouldn’t hurt him politically, said Jim Petro, a former Republican attorney general and university system chancellor in Ohio whose daughter is gay.

Petro has changed his position on the issue and lost a Republican primary for governor in 2006 after opposing a state constitutional amendment in 2004 banning same-sex marriage.

“It is a different era” today and people’s views on same-sex marriage have changed “dramatically” in recent years, Petro said.

“To people of good conscience, your family usually comes first,” he said. “The notion of commitment between two people, of however they choose to make that commitment, who are committed to caring for one another for the rest of their lives, that should be a good thing for Republicans or whoever at any point in our history.”

Opposition Remains

Still, opposition to same-sex marriage remains a potent political force, with 41 states banning it, and opponents say endorsements such as Portman’s can’t sway the basic family values of the U.S. public.

“For him to try to influence public policy because of a tragic situation in his family,” said Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values in Cincinnati, “I do not see that as changing the views of the voters in Ohio.”

Opposition is strongest among Christian conservatives and other crucial Republican voting blocs, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

“These types of issues do attract a lot of controversy no matter which way you go because the people who care about the issues on either side are very passionate,” Green said.

At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, Portman’s announcement was met by disappointment among some Republican activists concerned that their party is forgetting its core values.

‘Biblical Stance’

“Our party has a biblical stance that we’ve always taken - - it’s a Christian stance -- and there’s nothing good about being gay in the Bible,” said Robert Baird, 67, of Groveland, Florida, wearing a wrist bracelet at the conference reading: “Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman.”

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican and friend of Portman’s, said the senator’s position change won’t change his views on the issue.

“I believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Boehner said in an interview with ABC News that will air tomorrow on “This Week.” “It’ what I believe. It’s what my church teaches me. And I can’t imagine that position would ever change.”

While there will be voters who oppose a candidate solely on this issue, said Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, Portman’s decision is a family matter and no one can question his “conservative credentials.”

“I respect those who have strong feelings about the issue, but that’s not the totality of the makeup of Senator Portman,” Bennett said in a telephone interview.

Changing Views

Nationally, a plurality of Americans have said they support marriage equality, according to a poll conducted by George Washington University and Politico in December, with 40 percent agreeing and 30 percent supporting civil unions. One in five surveyed said they had changed their minds on the issue, and among younger Americans -- those ages 18-29 -- almost two-thirds said they support same-sex marriage.

The increasing number of political leaders speaking out in support is bound to accelerate an evolution in public thinking, says Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University in Columbus.

“This is like a snowball rolling downhill,” Beck said in an interview yesterday. “People who you and I might respect take a view that is different from ours; we begin to think twice about our own view.”

The president announced that his own thinking had changed during an interview with ABC News in May, in the midst of his 2012 re-election campaign, when he said: “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

California Case

The Obama administration has urged the Supreme Court to reinstate same-sex marriage in California.

The designation of marriage “confers a special validation of the relationship between two individuals and conveys a message to society that domestic partnerships or civil unions cannot match,” U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argues.

The former solicitor general of a Republican administration is leading the argument for gay marriage in California at the high court: Ted Olson, who served President George W. Bush.

At the same time, the political sensitivity of the issue could be measured in the story of Cheney, who served two terms as Bush’s vice president and whose daughter, Mary, is gay.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington in June 2009, Cheney said: “As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, and it is something we have lived with for a long time in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish.”

Political Peril

Still, Cheney hadn’t spoken out in support of gay marriage when Bush was first running for president in 2000, or in a 2004 re-election campaign that emphasized traditional family values in Republican precincts. He said in an ABC News interview last year that “it wouldn’t have done much good and probably would have sunk President George W. Bush’s prospects for office.”

Even now, former first lady Laura Bush, a supporter of same-sex marriage, has asked to be removed from a $1 million TV ad campaign that a group called Respect for Marriage is airing in support of the issue. The ad featured her, Cheney, Obama and retired Army General Colin Powell as supporters.

Portman, a former budget director in the Bush administration and a former congressman, was among Republican Mitt Romney’s potential vice presidential candidates in 2012. Romney asserted that marriage is reserved for a man and woman.

In his essay, Portman revealed that two years ago, his son Will, then a freshman at Yale University, told him and his wife that he is gay.

Christian Faith

“I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister,” Portman wrote. “Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.”

As a U.S. House member, Portman voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and a 1999 bill to prohibit same-sex couples in the District of Columbia from adopting children. He also supported the idea of a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages.

In 2011, his opposition to gay rights led to a protest by graduates of the University of Michigan law school who walked out of his commencement address after petitioning that his invitation to speak be withdrawn because of his views.

‘Right Time’

He told CNN in an interview broadcast this morning that at the time he knew his son was gay. Portman said that even though he has known about his son’s sexual orientation for two years, he was making the announcement now for two reasons: He has only recently become comfortable with his decision to shift his position, and he knew he would probably be asked about his opinion in the cases before the Supreme Court.

“It was the right time to let folks know where I stand so there’s no confusion, so I would be clear about it,” Portman told CNN.

In an interview with the Columbus newspaper yesterday, Portman said he sought advice last weekend from Cheney.

“Do the right thing. Follow your heart,’” Portman said Cheney told him.

In a Twitter message yesterday, Will Portman linked to the Columbus Dispatch op-ed essay and wrote:

“Especially proud of my dad today.”

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