Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fla anti gay ammendment battle

Proposed ban unites red, blue
A bipartisan group forms to defeat a gay marriage amendment.
Published July 10, 2007


A well-funded, bipartisan group is revving up to fight the likely ballot proposal for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages in Florida.

Prominent leaders of the "Florida Red and Blue" committee say they've pulled in more than $1-million over the last 60 days to defeat the so-called Marriage Protection Amendment, which already faces the steep hurdle of needing at least 60 percent support to pass.

"This is something that doesn't belong in Florida or Florida's Constitution," said Miami investor Jon Kislak, who is chairman of the group and a former finance chairman for Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum and for Republican former Rep. Clay Shaw.

The biggest donor so far is Republican Donald Burns, a Palm Beach investor and philanthropist, who agreed to donate $250,000 if organizers could match that in donations, which they did.

"Based upon what we've seen to date, it appears to be a pretty hot-button issue and based upon the response we're seeing, we're going to have the resources to have a very serious conversation with Florida voters," said Red and Blue finance chairman Bob Farmer, a Bal Harbour Democrat who has been a top fundraiser for John Kerry, Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis.

Measure died in '06

Backers of the ballot initiative to enact a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage tried to get it on the ballot in 2006. Despite a $300,000 contribution from the state GOP, they failed to get the necessary 611,000 signatures, and now say they need just 18,000 more to put it on the ballot in November 2008.

But Republican Gov. Charlie Crist has distanced himself from the effort, saying he doesn't want his party contributing any more money. What's more, Florida voters last year decided that it should take a 60 percent majority to amend the state Constitution from now on.

Of the 40 constitutional amendments approved since 1996, only 12 received 60 percent of the vote. Eight states passed gay marriage bans in 2006, but only four - Alabama, Idaho, South Carolina and Tennessee - did so with at least 60 percent of the vote.

"We not only had to have more signatures than any other state in the country, but now we have the 60 percent hurdle, which no other state has," said John Stemberger, pushing for the amendment as president of the Florida Family Policy Council. "But I anticipate we will have the most well-funded, robust, active campaign of any state marriage amendment, and we will have to have that in order to win."

Leaders of Florida Red and Blue - so named to stress bipartisanship - say a big part of their campaign will be warning voters about potential unintended consequences. They say the amendment is written so broadly that it could restrict, say, health benefits or hospital visitation rights for unmarried couples, gay or straight.

Michigan, for instance, passed an anti-gay marriage amendment in 2004, and earlier this year a Michigan court ruled that it also bars public employers from offering health coverage and other benefits to any unmarried couples.

"This is not just a gay marriage issue. This is heath care for unmarried couples. It's about hospital visitation, and really it applies to heterosexual couples as well as homosexual," said Kislak, 58, who has a lesbian daughter raising his grandson with her partner.

Stemberger said the amendment was written specifically to allow any benefits granted by public and private groups for domestic partners to continue existing. He called it "a desperate attempt to avoid the gay marriage issue because they will lose if the real issue is discussed."

Ban already is in law

Florida law already forbids same-sex marriage, but supporters of the ballot initiative say they want to secure that restriction in the Constitution in case courts strike down the law.

Farmer, the legendary Democratic fundraiser, said he may seek fundraising assistance from some of the presidential candidates regularly campaigning in Florida. He also expects to reach out to business interests who he said might see convention booking and tourism drop if the state passes the initiative.

"At my age, I'm not necessarily in favor of gay marriage," said Farmer, who is 69 and gay. "But I live in Florida, and that this would enshrine in our Constitution discrimination really offended me."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or 727893-8241.

Fast Facts:

What it says

The language of the proposed "Marriage Protection Amendment":

"Inasmuch as a marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized."

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