Two Republican senators have made waves in Washington State after announcing their support for a marriage equality bill proposed earlier this month by Gov. Christine Gregoire. And one told The Advocate he's not afraid of the retaliation promised by antigay groups.
Washington is poised to become the seventh state in the country, plus the District of Columbia, to allow same-sex marriage. Introduced last week, the measure is expected to easily pass the House but needs one more vote in the state Senate. As of Thursday, 24 members of the 49-strong body have pledged their support, but the bill needs 25 votes to pass. Democrats control both chambers.
Five members of the Senate remain undecided -- two Republicans and three Democrats -- and there is a solid group of 20 "no" voters (including two Democrats).
Steve Litzow was the first Republican in the Senate to endorse Gregoire's proposal and has since been praised for his decision to step outside party lines. The Seattle Times recently published an editorial praising Litzow's support as "outstanding" and "commendable."
"Litzow is a profile in courage, a freshman lawmaker willing to act on conviction," the Times wrote.
The senator is much more modest. He said when the governor first brought up the idea of statewide marriage equality late last year, he knew it was the right thing to do.
"It's really consistent with the fundamental tenets of individual freedom and personal responsibility," he said in an interview with The Advocate. "It's all about people getting to live the life they want to live without the government getting involved. It's a core principle of the type of Republican I am."
Less than a week later, fellow Republican senator Cheryl Pflug joined Litzow. Pflug couldn't be reached for comment due to ongoing power outages across the state brought on by heavy snow and ice storms.
Litzow, up for reelection in November, said reaction so far has been "overwhelmingly positive," and his endorsement wasn't influenced by the end of his term. He shrugged off a recent pledge by the antigay National Organization for Marriage to put up $250,000 to challenge any Republican Washington senator who supports the bill.
"I am very comfortable with my position in the Senate, and I'm willing to take on any and all competitors," Litzow said. "The games have started. ... I continue to say if they want to [play them], let's go. Game on."
Zach Silk, campaign manager for Washington United for Marriage, said the views of Republicans like Litzow and Pflug are increasingly in line with those of mainstream voters statewide and nationally. The two represent what Silk calls "Evans Republicans" (named after Republican Dan Evans, a former U.S. senator and three-term governor of Washington), who are fiscally conservative but socially moderate -- the type of Republicanism that's been prevalent throughout the state for the past century.
Even though it looks as if marriage equality has a good chance of passing, Silk said his organization is preparing to defend the bill at the ballot box. Washington has a fairly low bar regarding the number of signatures needed to put the measure on the ballot -- it's slightly over 120,000 for this bill -- but Silk is optimistic that even if it heads to the voters, it'll still pass.
An October poll out of the University of Washington found 55% of voters were in favor of marriage equality. Washington also made history in 2009 when voters passed Referendum 71, which upheld a legislative action that made the state the first in the country to extend relationship rights and "everything but marriage" to LGBT couples.
"It's a daunting challenge," he said. "But with the kind of coalition we're building with moderate Republicans, we can battle and win at the ballot box too."
Thalia Zepatos, Freedom to Marry's director of public engagement who's based in Portland, Ore., said if the measure passes in Washington, the drive for marriage equality could easily spread south.
"That will be a huge message for Oregon -- the states are so linked in that Northwest identity that it could come up and pass very quickly in the next couple of years," she said. "These things don't happen in a vacuum."
Hearings for the bill start today, and Litzow hopes it will come to the Senate floor shortly after -- but he does expect the vote will be close.
"I think it will pass by one or two votes," he said. "It'll probably be a 24-25 or a 23-26 vote."
But Litzow said he's firmly on the side of marriage equality and has been for years, no internal debates about it.
"Quite frankly, this has been a very easy decision," he said.
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