Gay marriage splits Obama’s convention planners

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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President Barack Obama’s campaign manager on Wednesday backed away from calls for the Democratic convention platform to endorse marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

“There is a process to go through this discussion,” said campaign manager Jim Messina. By the end of the September convention, he said, “we will have a platform,” but did not say whether it should include a marriage stance.

Instead, Messina slammed opponents of gay marriage.

“We’re the big tent party… we have a great record on fighting for fundamental fairness for all,” he said, adding that “our record stands in sharp contract with the other side.”

Messina’s equivocation came after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was asked at a Politico breakfast whether he supports “marriage equality” being included as a party plank.

“I certainly do support it, and have a for a long time,” said Villaraigosa, who is the chair of the Obama’s presidential convention in Charlotte, N.C.

However, Democratic officials have already subordinated marriage changes to their election-year plan.

Last September, Democrats in North Carolina’s Senate set a May date — not a November date — for a ballot to decide whether marriage should be defined in the state’s constitution as a union of one man and one woman, thereby barring gays from marriage licenses.

The vote kept the ballot far removed from Obama’s November election, but also scheduled it for a Republican primary in May when many conservatives — but few liberals — are likely to vote, said Democratic state Rep. Marcus Brandon, the only gay state legislator.

Messina’s caution illustrates the deep division between the party’s wealthy progressive leadership and its vital — but socially conservative — blocs of Latino and African-American voters.

The progressive wing, which includes many gays and lesbians, says marriage should be defined as a legal agreement between two consenting adults.

Social conservatives say marriage is an institution that has evolved to successfully bind parents to their children, and should aided by government because of high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births among heterosexual couples.

Messina’s equivocation on marriage stands in sharp contrast to the party’s aggressive response to recent controversies caused by the White House’s unprecedented regulation of religious organization’s health insurance plans, as well as conservative objections to the president’s approach to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

In both those controversies, Obama and his deputies have quickly escalated the disputes.

For example, Democratic legislators have claimed Catholic bishops want to ban contraception.

On Mar. 6 Obama accused his GOP critics of urging war against Iran. “There’s no doubt that those who are suggesting, or proposing, or beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what they think the costs and benefits would be,” Obama said during a White House press conference.

But Villaraigosa’s call for same-sex marriage to be approved by the Democratic Party’s platform is riskier for Obama, partly because supporters of traditional marriage have already won more than 30 state ballots that have defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Those victories were aided by support from African-Americans and Latinos — two blocs that the Obama campaign sees as vital in the 2012 race.

The legalization of same-sex marriage is strongly supported by most gays and lesbians. They’re about four percent of the electorate, and want to be seen as socially equal to married heterosexual couples.

“I believe in family values and I believe that we all ought to be able to have a family and marry if you want to,” Villaraigosa said. “I don’t think the government should be in that business of denying people the fundamental right to marry.”

In a show of support for progressives and gays, Messina blasted opposition to same-sex marriage as “regressive.”

Gay lobbyists have persuaded several states to change marriage laws, most recently in Maryland and Washington state.

In both states, however, same-sex marriage opponents are collecting signatures to force ballot referendums in November. Maine is also expected to schedule a ballot initiative in November. North Carolina has its referendum in May.

Those ballots may spur turnout by social conservatives, and reduce Obama’s ballot totals.

Several other states offer some recognition of gay partnerships, which are usually described as civil unions.

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