Vermont Politics, Tradition Helped Civil Unions Pass
By Jake Brown, Special to Stateline
This year, for gays and lesbians, the stars were aligned in Vermont. With a bit of luck and a healthy dose of solid lobbying, it all came together in the form of a first-in-the-nation civil unions bill that all but grants gays and lesbians the right to marry.
At the behest of an activist state supreme court, the legislature passed the ground-breaking bill this spring. It creates a parallel system for gays and lesbians to join in a marriage-like union, under which they are granted all the benefits of traditional marriage.
Gov. Howard Dean signed the measure April 26, and couples will be able to get joined in the new unions starting July 1. laws that point in the other direction, toward preserving traditional marriage as a heterosexual institution, why was it that this unique bill passed in Vermont? What are the special characteristics of Vermont -- its conditions, qualities and values -- that allowed this radical notion that runs counter to thousands of years of tradition, to become a reality?
Observers of the debate from all perspectives interviewed recently offered at least five reasons why, besides the court's action, that the cutting-edge legislation made it in Vermont.
Vermont has a well-known liberal political climate.
- There was a strong and well-organized lobbying campaign by the proponents.
- The state is small in size, which among other things makes this sort of battle cheaper to fight.
- Vermont's clunky constitutional amendment process and lack of a public referendum process thwarted opponents.
- Perhaps subtlest of all, an unusual rural and small town social interaction exists in Vermont.
Politics in Vermont have a tradition of being on the libertarian side, and Vermont history is marked by a strong civil rights streak. While the state was until the last couple of decades dominated by Republicans, it has often come down on the side of individual rights. (Several observers pointed out that while the majority of the Vermont Supreme Court is considered liberal in the modern sense, the author of the majorityopinion, Chief Justice Jeffrey Amestoy is a moderate Republican who embodies many of the traditional Vermont Republican values.)
"There has always been a libertarian contrarianism about Vermont," said DavidKelley, a lawyer for the ski industry, 1994 Republican candidate for governor and supporter of the civil unions measure."We have a long tradition of challenging the traditional wisdom and the status quo," he said.
Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery, was a state that declared war onNazi Germany before the federal government, and denounced McCarthyism early on,according to Frank Bryan, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Add to that long tradition thousands of well-educated, liberal-leaning "flatlanders" who have moved to the state over the last three decades and have become active in public life, and it becomes clear that Vermont is fertile ground for sweeping change.
Central to Vermont's tradition, both on the left and the right, is the notion of "live and let live" is a constant in Vermont life. One lobbyist offered an example. "In Vermont we have a tradition of leaving your neighbor alone except when he needs help. We have a tradition of pulling your neighbor out of the ditch when he's slid off the road, but not knocking on his door at home unless we're invited."
So the political terrain, as the court issued its December 20 ruling, was relativelysmooth for the supporters of gay rights. And they moved with swiftness and dexterity,observers said. They were well-organized and articulate and drove their point home timeand again.
Anthony Otis, a Montpelier lobbyist who has watched Vermont politics for years but who did not work on the civil unions issue, called the proponents' lobbying effort "very skillfully managed." And David Rice, one of the lobbyists for Take it to the People, a group that opposed to the measure said, "We were reacting to a well-designed plan. It was so well designed we were in a defensive position." That group tried unsucessfully to get a consitutional amendment process going to halt the advance of gay rights.
Halting the march of the proponents through a constitutional amendment was almost a lost cause from the beginning. Vermont has a burdensome constitutional amendment process that requires an unusual number of steps. First, the Vermont Constitution can be amended only once every four years. The Senate must pass the amendment by a two-thirds vote, then it has to get a majority in the House. Then, the amendment must be approved by another legislature, a legislature created after an election, by a majority in both houses. Then, the amendment must go to the public for final approval. And the lack of a binding statewide public referendum process like California's in Vermont made it hard, literally, for opponents to "take it to the people."
Finally, several commentators noted a far more amorphous but nevertheless important reason that civil unions succeeded in Vermont. The state, because of its rural nature, forces people of different persuasions to interact with each other, whether it be across the aisle in the State House or on the local school board or rescue squad. Not only does this foster an unusual tolerance, but it also sets up a system of checks on uncivil behavior, people said.
One lobbyist, who worked for the proponents, illustrated the point by telling of his visits during the first months of the legislative session to a local, rural general store,where he buys milk in the evening on his way home from work.
"The owner of the store was against civil unions, and I was for it. And we had aconversation about this issue every night -- we didn't have it just one time. We had theconveration every night for three months." No minds were changed, he said, but thedebate and discussion, which was always polite, may have lead to some learning andunderstanding on both sides.
Bryan, the University of Vermont political science professor, remembers beingtaught social studies during his high school years in the late 1950s in a small Vermonttown on the Connecticut River by a gay man. And people in town didn't seem to pay much mind.
"By and large it was a civil society in Newbury -- here he was a gay man involvedin education, nobody worried about that," Bryan said.
Rep. Karen Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier, said that the advance of the gay rights legislation could have been in part due to relatively active civic life many lead in Vermont as well as the lack of closed societal and cultural circles that keep people apart and isolated in other places.
"There are volunteer boards, civic activity is high, and that gets you connected -- apersonal connection makes it hard for anyone to say that you, if you are gay, are a badperson. You just can't dismiss people when you know them and work with them," shesaid.
"In many Vermont towns there is no 'other side of the tracks' and children all goto school together and people tend to interact," she said.
Bryan put it succinctly: "In Vermont, you've got to live with people."
Elections on the Horizon
For all the political success of the supporters of the civil unions bill, the future of the measure is unclear. Polls show a majority of Vermonters do not support giving gays and lesbians the option of civil unions, and opponents of the measure have vowed to fight hard to replace lawmakers who supported the bill. They have also targeted Gov.Dean, who supported it uwaveringly and signed it promptly. a Republican candidate for governor, is highly critical of Dean and says that Vermonters are angry because their legislators failed to listen to them.
"Our elected officials and the Supreme Court have become so accustomed to getting what they want without public interference - they believe that people have become accustomed to coercive government."
Rice, the lobbyist for Take it to the People, said the group is "reeling from theloss." But he said that opponents across Vermont have vowed to go to the polls and oustthose who supported the bill. It is unclear how much of the anger will remain six months from now, and whether the heat of the political moment will continue to burn, or whether it will be tempered by time.