Proposed Same-Sex Marriage Bill Surprises Michigan Dems

Todd Heywood

Michigan Democrats were surprised when State Rep. Pam Byrnes announced she would offer legislation aimed at reversing the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

LANSING — Concerned with the party’s electoral fortunes in 2010, many
Michigan Democrats were caught off guard on Friday when State Rep. Pam Byrnes
announced she would introduce legislation aimed at reversing the
state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage OK’d by voters in 2004.

“The time has come,” Byrnes, the House speaker pro tem, said in an interview.
“I think attitudes are changing. We are seeing other states flip on
this issue especially when you get the former Vice President Dick
Cheney acknowledging same-sex marriages…then I think we definitely see
a change in attitude and it’s time to revisit this.”

Byrnes plans on formally announcing her legislation on Saturday at
the Michigan Pride gay rights rally at the state Capitol. But the
Washtenaw County Democrat’s plan faces considerable challenges.

A two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers is required in order
to put the measure before Michigan voters. While the Democrats control
the House, which would be more likely to pass Byrnes’ bill, getting
two-thirds of the Republican-controlled Senate would be considerably more

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“While we support repeal of the ban, I think getting a two-thirds
[majority vote in the legislature] could be difficult,” said Mark
Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “We will have to deal
with it as it moves along the process.”

Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan, who
helped drive the ballot initiative that ultimately created Michigan’s
constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, said Byrnes’ proposed
legislation has little chance of success.

“In the unlikely event it ever does come up for a vote, we doubt it
gets even a simple majority of the House voting in favor of overturning
so recent a vote of the people,” Glenn said in an email to Michigan
Messenger. “It certainly will not get the two-thirds vote required to
actually place it on the ballot. But it does make for high drama, as
political theater goes, to announce such legislation during a
homosexual ‘rights’ rally, even though it’ll never see the light of day

And Glenn could be right. While a recent poll reported on by the Detroit Free Press has
showed a significant shift in support for same-sex marriage in the
state since the 2004 statewide vote, support for same-sex marriage in
the state currently stands at 46.5 percent.

While Brewer said it was premature to assess how Byrnes’ proposed
legislation could affect the 2010 legislative and gubernatorial races,
the Michigan Democratic Party chief acknowledged that putting lawmakers
in the position of voting on legislation seen as “pro-gay marriage”
could be used as a weapon in the coming election, where control of both
legislative chambers could be in play.

“It’s a queston of whether it comes up for a vote,” said Brewer. “It
also puts Republicans in tough spots. I would be surprised if [Sen.
Majority Leader] MIke Bishop [R-Rochester] would allow something like
this to come to a vote.”

Byrnes’ unexpected move to introduce the same-sex marriage
legislation has raised questions about the lawmaker’s timing, which
could be tied to the speaker pro tem’s political calculus.

Observers have noted that Byrnes, whose 52nd House District
seat encompasses sections of the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County
towns and townships north and west of the city, may be eying a run for
the 18th Senate District
seat that takes in much of Democratic-dominated county. That district,
currently represented by Liz Brater, whose seat is term-limited, is said to be
eyed by State Rep. Rebekkah Warren of the 53rd House District,
which takes in the majority of the city of Ann Arbor and portions of
neighboring townships. Warren is the daughter of State Rep. Alma
Wheeler Smith of Salem Township, who is running for the Democratic
gubernatorial nomination.

Some sources have told Michigan Messenger that Byrnes could be using
Saturday’s announcement and the same-sex marriage legislative push as a
way to increase her visibility among Ann Arbor’s GLBT community in
order to boost her chances at winning Brater’s seat.

Phil Volk, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party’s LGBTA Caucus,
said it’s hard to predict how Byrnes’ legislation might be received.

“It’s going to depend on who frames the questions first and gets their talking points out,” Volk said of the proposal.

Still, Volk said: “We are going to see a lot of people diving for cover.”

Volk said marriage equality proponents have to frame the issue as
equality, and prevent the opponents, like Glenn from framing it as a
“family values thing.”

Michelle Brown, co-director of Michigan Equality, said Byrnes’ move was important, and would move the issue forward.

“If you don’t ever start to talk about it, how will you ever be
ready to talk about it?” Brown said. “So to have someone in the
legislature say: ‘You know what, it’s time we revisit it,’ to me sort
of says its a wake-up call for everybody that perhaps we all need to be
listening to what the people of Michigan are saying.”

Brown said the impact on the 2010 election cycle is going to be how
the LGBT community responds to Byrne’s move and any legislators who
support it.

“The impact is if we sit at home in 2010,” Brown said.

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