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Tide turns in favor of gay marriage

More employers say same-sex relationships should be legalized


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Paid staffers for Oregon United for Marriage engage in role-playing at the Northeast Portland campaign headquarters, as training for door-to-door canvassing. The staff then knocked on doors to get petition signatures and campaign donations to promote gay marriage. My how quickly the terrain has changed for gay marriage in Oregon.

Back in 2004, Dan Lavey — a top Oregon Republican political strategist — supported a state constitutional amendment on the ballot that banned same-sex marriage.

Now Lavey is mobilizing business support to overturn that same amendment, via a new initiative likely headed for next November’s ballot.

“It’s really striking how fast opinions have changed on this,” Lavey says — including his own. And businesses are jumping on board, providing crucial funding and mainstream credibility for the campaign spearheaded by Basic Rights Oregon and its broader campaign arm, Oregon United for Marriage.

“A lot of employers want to send a message of tolerance, equity, fairness and inclusiveness,” Lavey says, “so they want to be on record supporting those

values.”

The measure hasn’t qualified yet for the November 2014 ballot, but some 3,500 volunteers plus paid staffers already have gathered most of the needed signatures, eight months before the deadline.

Normally groups wait for ballot measures to qualify before taking a stand, but this campaign is different.

In the past two months alone:

• On Sept. 10, the Portland Business Alliance board voted by at least a two-thirds majority to support same-sex marriage in Oregon. The group, with 1,600 members, serves as the metro area’s chamber of commerce.

• On Oct. 2, the Oregon Business Association board voted 39-0, with one abstention, to support same-sex marriage. The group has more than 300 members, including some of the Portland area’s biggest corporations, such as Nike, PGE, NW Natural and Wells Fargo Bank.

• On Oct. 11, the Portland Timbers, Portland Thorns and Portland Trail Blazers became the first professional sports teams in the nation to endorse same-sex marriage.

• Last week, Nike created a new political action committee to support same-sex marriage, seeding it with $100,000 in corporate money and $180,000 from Nike executives.

Far cry from 2004

In 2004, after Multnomah County commissioners’ stealth decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the county, the Oregon Family Council mobilized enraged religious conservatives to quickly gather signatures to place the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage before voters.

GOP political mastermind Karl Rove helped get similar measures on 10 other state ballots at the same time, boosting turnout for President George W. Bush’s re-election.

But the political tide has turned nationally and in Oregon. A December 2012 poll showed 54 percent of Oregon voters support same-sex marriage.

Now Republicans who support measures that bar same-sex marriage do so at their “peril,” says Lavey, a former close aide to Oregon Republicans Gordon Smith, Chris Dudley and others. “At least in Oregon, I think Republican candidates would be wise to consider supporting marriage equality,” he says.

In 2007, Oregon joined the first wave of states passing domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, which granted them equal treatment to heterosexual couples under state law. Then a series of court decisions opened the door for states to approve full marriage equality for same-sex couples, going beyond civil unions and domestic partnerships. That culminated this June, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned most of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed by then-President Bill Clinton, which denied same-sex couples more than 1,100 federal benefits accorded to heterosexual couples. Those include Social Security survivor rights and the right to file taxes as a married couple.

In the past few years, California, Washington and 14 other states have legalized same-sex marriage, and couples there are starting to enjoy some of those federal benefits. Same-sex couples also say marriage means equal treatment, while civil unions and domestic partnerships smack of discrimination.

Oregon now is somewhat of a laggard, at least on the West Coast.

Portland employers increasingly say they don’t want the lack of same-sex marriage here to be a barrier to hiring or retaining talent.

“It’s hard to convince an employee to move where the legal status of their family is not recognized,” says Sandra McDonough, president and chief executive officer of the Portland Business Alliance.

Many employees being recruited to Portland-area technology companies, for instance, also might be considering jobs in Seattle and San Francisco, where same-sex marriage is recognized. Employers with operations in multiple states, such as Nike, don’t want that to be a factor.

And local companies are keenly aware that younger people are far more supportive of gay marriage than older generations, and more likely see it as a litmus test when evaluating a place to live.

“It’s an overwhelming number of young people who see this as being an issue,” McDonough says. “That’s who the next generation of leaders is going to be.”

The lack of gay marriage rights here also could be a factor in causing someone to move, especially as they decide to marry and raise children. Then it becomes an issue of employee retention as well as recruitment.

It’s hard to confirm cases where recruits balked at taking jobs here because of our ban on gay marriage, says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association.

But employers don’t want Oregon to be “too far down the list” of states adopting same-sex marriage, he says, and want to send the message that everyone here is treated equally.

Business people also have noticed some people are taking their dollars out of state, to hold weddings elsewhere.

“I know of several couples that have moved to Vancouver and gotten married, so we’re losing taxpayers,” says Mark Edlen, the chief executive of Gerding Edlen Development Co. LLC in Portland. “I think that impact’s going to grow.”

About nine out of every 10 people moving into the company’s residential developments here are from elsewhere, he notes.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Nick Chun, a paid staffer for Oregon United for Marriage, talks with people on the street in Northwest Portland and gets a signature to support the gay marriage measure on next years ballot.

Keeping dollars separate

Some Portland business leaders oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds, McDonough says. But a bigger problem for the Portland Business Alliance was that Basic Rights Oregon, the state’s leading gay rights group, is in the labor-led Our Oregon coalition. Our Oregon and business groups have been sparring in recent years over taxes, spending and other matters.

Business leaders didn’t want their donations to the same-sex marriage campaign to wind up helping Our Oregon. So the Oregon Business Association, Portland Business Alliance and Nike decided to park their money in separate political arms.

That’s a result of some “political scar tissue from the past,” Lavey says. In the end, he says, business donations will serve the main marriage equality campaign, and not fund a parallel or independent campaign.

“In the end, everyone is going to be pulling the wagon in the same direction, but there may be multiple wagons,” Lavey says.

“We’re all aligned,” agrees Deckert, who is serving on an advisory committee for the

campaign.

Critics quiet, for now

Tim Nashif, an Oregon Family Council board member who led the 2004 drive for the constitutional ban on gay marriage, says the new support from business is a sign of changing attitudes.

“Businesses obviously don’t feel it’s going to hurt their business, or they wouldn’t do it,” Nashif says. “I think there’s a lot of people coming out of the woodwork to support this measure.”

Oregon business leaders who oppose same-sex marriage are more likely to keep quiet now, lest they face criticism or business repercussions, Nashif says.

A veteran political strategist for Christian conservatives, Nashif says opponents of gay marriage saw how business helped give an overwhelming financial advantage to pro-gay marriage forces in last year’s Washington campaign. Often these campaigns come down to who has the most money to spend, he says.

Everyone expects opponents to mount a campaign against the November 2014 constitutional amendment, and Oregon Family Council already has created a political committee, Protect Marriage Oregon, to lead that charge.

But it’s not clear yet who will lead that committee, Nashif says.

The Oregon Family Council has opted to put its organizational muscle behind its own initiative, aiming for the same ballot. That would guarantee individuals’ and businesses’ rights to refrain from providing services for same-sex weddings or similar ceremonies on religious grounds.

That measure, should it qualify, likely would bring more socially conservative Christians out to the polls, generating more votes against same-sex marriage. But Nashif is giving out the message that the tide has turned since 2004, and his side is moving on to more winnable issues.

“Whatever happens in 2014,” he says, “our belief in traditional marriage was extended another decade.”


Still a gay magnet

Though Oregon is not one of the 16 states that have legalized same-sex marriage, the area remains a bastion of support for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

• Political leaders

Portland boasted the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, Sam Adams. Oregon has the nation’s first lesbian House speaker, Tina Kotek, D-Portland. Secretary of State Kate Brown, while married to a man, considers herself bisexual. And the Oregon Supreme Court includes Rives Kistler, a gay man, and Virginia Linder, a lesbian.

• Population

Multnomah County has the fifth-highest proportion of same-sex couples among all the nation’s counties, nearly 1.7 percent of all households, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.

Gallup reported that Oregon ties for the second-highest share of residents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Hawaii, with 5.1 percent, is highest in the nation. Oregon and Vermont come next, at 4.9 percent.

• Civil liberties

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered civil rights group, recently gave Portland a 100 score — its highest — for equality measures. Eugene scored 93 on the 100-point scale, and Salem scored 91. The average score for 291 rated cities was 57.