LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The personal experiences of friends, family or constituents persuaded a crucial group of Republican lawmakers to vote for same-sex marriage in three state legislatures last month, in some cases tipping the balance in favor of legalizing gay matrimony.
Among them were two Washington state legislators with gay relatives, a New Jersey state senator who changed her mind while working on an anti-bullying measure and a Maryland state House delegate inspired by a gay couple coping with cancer.
“All politics is personal,” Republican Washington state Senator Steve Litzow said in explaining his vote to support gay marriage legislation.
“If people have a personal connection, know ‘this is somebody I love and care about,’ I think that makes a huge difference,” said Litzow, one of four Republican state senators who helped the measure pass in Washington state by a vote of 28 to 21.
Gay marriage is one of the defining “culture wars” issues dividing the United States during the 2012 presidential election year. Supporters see it as a question of civil rights and equality for gay Americans. Opponents see it as morally wrong and an attack on traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
At the state level, where there has been surprising momentum for same sex marriage this year, some lawmakers put the ideological wars aside and responded to the personal pleas.
They did so at great political risk. Most of the Republican converts were met with impassioned resistance from fellow members of their party. Activists pledged to defeat them in the next election cycle, and in some cases constituents confronted them angrily.
But in separate interviews, each told Reuters that they were willing to lose their elected office in order to stand up for what they believed was a basic civil rights issue.
During an emotional debate on the floor of the Washington state House of Representatives in early February, Republican Maureen Walsh spoke of being frustrated that her lesbian daughter could not legally marry her girlfriend.
“She’s met the person that she loves very much and someday, by God, I want to throw a wedding for that kid,” Walsh told her fellow legislators on the floor of the House. “I hope she won’t feel like a second-class citizen.”
Video of Walsh’s speech went viral on the Internet, scoring millions of views on YouTube, after George Takei, an outspoken gay rights activist famous for his role as Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek,” posted it on his Facebook page.
Walsh then began receiving an outpouring of international support, with phone calls and text messages from Lebanon, Turkey, Sweden, Iceland, Japan, Germany and more.
But Walsh said one story made her feel that her vote, which helped the measure clear the House 55 to 43, was worth whatever cost she may face for her stance.
“My daughter got a text from a young girl after I gave my speech that said, ‘Will you please thank your mother? My mother hasn’t talked to me for three years since I came out to her. My mom called me and told me she loved me tonight,’” Walsh said.
The lawmaker was sitting at the dinner table when her daughter read the text aloud and remembers bursting into tears.
“Win or lose my next election, that meant everything to me,” she said in an emotional interview with Reuters.
Opponents have already started raising money to kick Walsh out of her seat. Over 70 percent of her district voted against a ballot measure affirming the state’s 2009 domestic partnership law.
Walsh, who called her vote an “issue of conscience,” was joined in crossing party lines to vote for gay marriage in Washington state by Glenn Anderson, whose younger brother is gay.
New Jersey state Senator Diane Allen was one of two Republicans to help provide the 24 to 16 margin for gay marriage in the state Senate. She said her vote was swayed by work on anti-bullying legislation, the personal stories shared by members of advocacy groups, and gay friends.
“Young people perceived as gay, lesbian or transgender tend to be bullied more than any other group. It all started to fall together after that,” Allen said in explaining her vote.
New Jersey’s anti-bullying legislation, said to be the toughest in the nation, passed in the wake of the suicide death of 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who took his life after fellow students posted video of him engaged in intimate behavior with another man.
“This was not the politically astute thing to do. It was just the right thing to do,” Allen said. “It could cost me my seat in the Senate, but the reality is that I’m not here to save my seat,” Allen said.
Maryland Delegate Wade Kach said he changed his position on gay marriage after hearing testimony from same-sex couples.
Kach, who describes himself as a conservative, said he was particularly moved by the story of a pastor and his partner, who had beaten cancer a few years ago, only to have the disease return. He remembered noticing how supportive the men were of each other.
The Maryland Senate vote for gay marriage was extremely close, at 25 to 22, while it squeaked through in the lower House of Delegates by 72 to 67.
“I can remember the pastor saying that they’ve been coming down (to the legislature) for the last eight years in support of this bill, and they don’t expect that next year they’ll be able to come any longer,” Kach said, referring to the cancer.
Kach said he received a deluge of emails and phone calls from constituents since he announced his support of the same-sex marriage bill, the majority angry and disappointed by the decision.
“It’s a shame that each one of my constituents didn’t have an opportunity to be there during the public hearing and have the opportunity to talk to some of the witnesses,” Kach said, “because I think some hearts would have been changed.”
Democratic governors of Maryland and Washington signed the legislation lawmakers approved, but in New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie vetoed it.
Republicans were not the only ones to help tip the balance in favor of same sex marriage.
In Washington state, Governor Chris Gregoire was pivotal in the outcome because she publicly backed the measure after years of being torn between her Catholic faith and a commitment to equality. Her endorsement encouraged supporters to push the legislation through.
Anne Levinson, a former deputy mayor of Seattle and co-owner of the Seattle Storm professional women’s basketball team, recalled the two sitting courtside at a basketball game and discussed Gregoire’s nearly 30-year journey from crafting anti-bullying legislation to finally supporting gay marriage.
“She was feeling like she wasn’t really being true to herself and her friendships and her values before this,” Levinson said.
(Additional reporting by Alice Popovici in Maryland and Himanshu Ojha in New York; Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Dan Burns, Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune)
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