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activists target antigay Oregon house speaker

Gay rights
activists target antigay Oregon house speaker

The quiet, tourism-oriented town of Troutdale, Ore., could become a battleground as gay rights activists prepare a campaign to topple a Republican legislative leader who thwarted a move to allow civil unions for same-sex couples. Troutdale is in the heart of the district represented by GOP house speaker Karen Minnis, who enraged gay rights backers this summer by refusing to let the Oregon house vote on a civil unions bill that had been passed by the state senate with the blessing of the Democratic governor. State and national gay rights groups are targeting Minnis for defeat in 2006 as part of an effort to elect more gay-friendly legislators and defeat lawmakers who have opposed giving more rights to gays and lesbians. A spokesman for a national gay rights group in Washington, D.C., said Oregon is one of several states where bills to provide more rights to gays and lesbians have faltered and where activists will be working to defeat lawmakers who stood in the way of those measures. "There are a handful of states where a change in a couple of seats could make a big difference," said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign. "And you could choose no finer example of that than house speaker Karen Minnis." The civil unions controversy is the latest chapter in Oregon's same-sex marriage debate that began in early 2004, when Multnomah County issued marriage licenses to 3,000 same-sex couples before a judge ordered the county to stop. Last fall Oregon voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage. It was one of 11 states to pass similar ballot measures.

Minnis knows she's in for a tough reelection fight because of her stand against the civil unions bill, which would have allowed same-sex couples to gain most of the benefits of marriage. "They're coming after me," she said during an interview in Troutdale. "I think they are going to attack me personally at every given turn."

At least on paper, Minnis would appear to be vulnerable to a concerted, well-funded effort by gay rights groups. Democrats hold an 8% voter registration edge in Minnis's house district in eastern Multnomah County. And Democrat Rob Brading, who lost to Minnis by 6% in 2004, plans to run against her again next year in what promises to be a higher-profile race. But Minnis has a big name advantage--she's in her fourth term and succeeded her husband, John Minnis, who served six house terms in the seat before she first was elected in 1998. Troutdale mayor Paul Thalhofer, a registered Democrat who supported Minnis's opponent in 2004, said he plans to back the Republican speaker next year--even though he personally supports allowing civil unions for same-sex couples. Thalhofer said Minnis has done a good job of representing the district's interests in the legislature on most other issues and that gay rights activists will have a tough time trying to defeat her next year. "She is quite popular in the district," the mayor said. "It will be difficult for those groups to turn enough voters against her to make a difference." In refusing to let the civil unions bill come up for a house vote, Minnis argued that it would violate the spirit of the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage passed by Oregon voters last November. The state's leading gay rights group, Basic Rights Oregon, argues that public opinion polls indicate growing support among Oregonians for civil unions and that Minnis thwarted the democratic process by not allowing the house to vote on the senate-passed bill.

Basic Rights spokeswoman Rebekah Kassell said her group will become involved in various legislative races next year, not just the Minnis race, because changing only one seat in the house wouldn't improve the chances of pro-gay rights legislation passing in the future. She noted that in neighboring Washington State, a bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and insurance failed by just one vote in the state senate earlier this year. It was one of several setbacks for gay rights supporters in state capitals this year. In Delaware, for example, a house-approved measure prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation was left in limbo as the legislature adjourned. And bills to ban discrimination against gays in Colorado and to legalize same-sex marriage in California were vetoed by the governors of those states.

Smith, the Human Rights Campaign's spokesman, declined for "strategic" reasons to list the states other than Oregon where gay rights backers plan to become actively involved in election contests in 2006. But he said it will be a more concerted election effort than in the past, reflecting a "political maturing" of the gay rights movement. "It will be done on a much broader scope nationwide," Smith said. (AP)

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