The Democrats' gay gamble

Undressing the politics of gay marriage

Rep. Jeanette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, is achieving the near impossible. She's uniting conservative state House Republicans and liberal Democrats — on gay marriage. And she's doing it by pissing off both groups.

Before a Feb. 26 House vote that narrowly failed to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, the GOP had been working the issue like the classic wedge it is. Senate Resolution 595 had divided House Democrats into two camps — rural white legislators with conservative constituencies versus most of the black caucus and metro lawmakers with liberal ones.

A constitutional amendment banning gay marriage — which would require a two-thirds majority vote to get on the ballot — can only help Republicans. It's sure to turn out religious conservatives in the fall, which is good for President Bush, good for state Republicans, and bad for Democrats. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers in right-leaning districts who voted "nay" for the resolution would fall prey to the GOP, which could use that vote against them in their runs for re-election.

Then along comes Jamieson. She represents one of the most conservative parts of the state, and yet voted against Senate Resolution 595, which passed the Senate Feb. 16. If the House had approved the measure two weeks ago, it would have put gay marriage before voters in November.

Jamieson, like many Democrats, argued that the legislation immediately would be struck down by the courts because it prohibits recognition of civil unions performed in other states. And that likely violates a number of provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The resolution also could threaten domestic partner benefits offered by some Atlanta companies.

But Jamieson's vote doesn't mean she's high on gay marriage.

"I am not for gay marriages in any form or fashion," she says. "I am not for civil unions." Still, she faces re-election in the fall, and her vote on Senate Resolution 595 could make up the minds of voters in her conservative district who'll decide whether she stays or goes.

So Jamieson took it upon herself to bring her own version of the anti-gay marriage resolution. It's just one sentence: "Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman."

Conservative Republicans object to it because it doesn't prohibit civil unions. Liberal Democrats and black legislators hate it because they see it as an anti-civil rights measure.

Take her at her word, and Jamieson's legislation is a conservative Democrat's gamble to get some gay marriage ban before voters. A more cynical assessment — the one taken by state Republicans — is that Jamieson's resolution is just part of a larger "If you can't beat 'em, at least make it look like you're joining them" plan.

Democrats have already introduced alternatives to other Republican initiatives, such as GOP efforts to get a faith-based amendment on the November ballot. But Jamieson vehemently insists her bill isn't part of a gambit to outflank Republicans.

"My resolution is no ploy," she says. "My resolution is the question. And if [Senate Resolution] 595 is not just election year soap-boxing, then let's pass the question."

She may have gotten her answer Tuesday. The vote to "engross" her resolution, which would have prevented it from being amended, failed overwhelmingly, 56-104. House Republicans and liberal Democrats joined forces to defeat the move.

"Politics makes strange bedfellows," says Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Newnan.

So what happens next? That's anyone's guess. A number of high-ranking Democrats say Senate Resolution 595 is done, so if Republicans want to vote on gay marriage they'll have to vote on Jamieson's legislation.

But if it hits the floor, Republicans will try to amend it to include provisions to prohibit the recognition of civil unions. If Democrats are smart, they'll band together to defeat such attempts. Then the resolution would be set up to fail. Because if it isn't amended, look for the same unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives that voted against engrossment to join hands again.

"You put those two groups together and I think they will defeat it," Westmoreland says.

He argues that if Jamieson's alternate to Senate Resolution 595 passes, it would have to go to a conference committee where it's likely to die. Still, he wouldn't rule out Republicans voting for Jamieson's measure.

"If it came down to a last resort, that may happen," Westmoreland says.

The fate of gay marriage will likely be decided in the session's final days.