As Vice President Dick Cheney sets foot in the battleground state of Oregon for the second time in as many weeks, he'll likely talk about terrorism, the economy, jobs--almost anything except gay marriage, campaign workers and analysts say. Cheney, whose 34-year-old daughter, Mary, is a lesbian, has veered from the Republican party line on gay marriage, saying he is opposed to a federal ban on
the practice. In Oregon, one of 12 states where voters will consider amending the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage this fall, the issue is looking like the proverbial elephant in the closet--everyone knows it's there, but no one will be talking about it, at least while the vice president is in town.
Asked four times whether the vice president would address the topic during his appearances in Oregon, Cheney's press secretary Anne Womack declined to answer the question directly, repeating: "I am telling you what he will talk about: He will talk about the state of the economy, he will talk about the president's plan to fight and win the war on terror. He will talk about jobs. About the future."
Although Cheney's comments in support of his daughter initially prompted an outcry from conservatives, the vice president is lionized as a symbol of the conservative right in Oregon, where his stance on gay marriage has the tacit understanding of most Republicans. "We absolutely love Dick Cheney. But that doesn't mean that Mary Cheney should be allowed to marry anyone she likes just as a brother should not be allowed to marry a sister," said Tim Nashif, one of Oregon's delegates to the Republican National Convention. Nashif is spearheading Constitutional Amendment 36, which proposes to rewrite the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. "It's disappointing--but not surprising that a father would stand up for his daughter," agreed Georgene Rice, spokeswoman for the Defense of Marriage Coalition, the group backing Constitutional Amendment 36.
Party leaders described the issue as too private for public debate. "His family situation involving his daughter is very personal and, if you ask me, it's nobody's business. Parents don't get to decide the lifestyle of their children," said Kevin Mannix, chairman of Oregon's Republican Party. "When Betty Ford came out and talked about her drug addiction, no one was making value judgments about Gerald Ford."
Of the 12 states nationally where voters will face ballot measures aimed at banning gay marriage, analysts say the most resources have been poured into Oregon by both sides, raising the state's profile in the gay union debate. Opponents of gay marriage in Oregon turned in 244,587 signatures--more than twice the necessary amount and by far the highest number ever submitted for an initiative measure in the state's history. While Republicans are playing down the issues raised by Mary Cheney's
presence in a party which opposes gay marriage, proponents have cited her as a chink in the Republican's conservative armor. "It just goes to show that families everywhere are facing this issue--
whether it's the vice president or families here in Oregon," said gay marriage advocate Shauna Shindler Ballo, spokeswoman for the No on Constitutional Amendment 36 campaign.
Nationally, gay rights groups have attempted to use Mary Cheney as a lever against her conservative father. One Web site, DearMary.Com, has a cartoon of father and daughter stick figures, accompanied by a nursery rhyme: "Once upon a time Dick's daughter was out. Dick's daughter stayed out after Dick was sworn in. Then Dick came out to help Bush make amends. Dick's daughter sold out to help Dick run again." The Web site, cofounded by Washington, D.C.-based activist John Aravosis, includes a "call to conscience" to Mary Cheney, asking her to use her position as a paid member of her father's campaign to influence the administration's "morally hypocritical" stance on gay marriage. "Her father is helping the administration in its efforts to make people like Mary second-class citizens," said Aravosis. Like many in the pro-gay movement, Aravosis noted that Mary Cheney attended the Republican National Convention but did not join her father on the podium. "The entire family, including cousins 10 times removed are on the stage--and his daughter wasn't? I'm sorry, but that's a big deal," said Aravosis. "It's almost like she has cancer. It's something secret that has to be whispered: 'She's a lesbian."'
Womack, Cheney's press secretary, confirmed that Mary Cheney is a member of her father's staff and will appear with her father in Oregon but said that she will not be on the podium because she plays a "behind-the-scenes role." Womack stressed that it was Mary Cheney's "personal decision" not to appear in the limelight with her father during the convention. Three weeks ago at a campaign rally in Davenport, Iowa, Cheney spoke supportively of gay relationships, stressing how proud he is of his two daughters and saying he would prefer to leave it up to the states' discretion rather than having a federal amendment. His position drew criticism from several conservative groups.