Thousands of supporters and critics of same-sex civil union legislation have filled the state Capitol grounds over the past two years in passionate displays of their sentiments on the issue.
The demonstrations were among the largest and most emotional the Capitol had seen in recent years, and Gov. Linda Lingle called her decision in July to veto the bill the most difficult in her eight years of office.
But the two major candidates to succeed Lingle in December, with just more than five weeks before the Nov. 2 general election, are signaling little desire to focus attention on the issue.
“It’s about strengthening our economy, it’s about jobs and it’s about education, and that’s our priority,” said Republican Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, who strongly opposed the bill Lingle vetoed, which would have given same-sex couples similar rights to married couples.
“I don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” said Democrat Neil Abercrombie, a former congressman who just as fervently supports civil unions. “It’s not an issue in the sense that suddenly somebody’s going to discover anything new.”
But longtime political analyst Dan Boylan said civil unions at least will be a campaign subtext, particularly among conservative religious leaders who have organized anti-civil unions rallies at the state Capitol. Aiona attended one of those in January.
“The pastors care about this. The Catholic Church cares about this. They talk about it with their congregations,” said Boylan, a retired history professor.
Garret Hashimoto, chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition, said it doesn’t matter how much the issue is debated by the candidates. His group and its allies know Aiona opposes civil unions and will do everything they can to get him elected, he said.
“It is the total Christian community — (Hawaii) Family Forum, Christian Coalition, other Christian organizations out there. We’re all strongly behind Aiona,” Hashimoto said.
Boylan noted that state GOP Chairman Jonah Kaauwai recently labeled Aiona “righteous” due in part to the candidate’s opposition to civil unions. Kaauwai also has called the Christian community an “important coalition of the Republican Party.”
The state GOP opposes civil unions while the state Democratic Party supports them.
Leaders of groups backing civil unions said they will urge members to assist Abercrombie by phone banking and participating in get-out-the-vote efforts, said Alan Spector, co-chair of Equality Hawaii.
The civil unions issue was infrequently discussed during the Democratic primary campaign, even though it was one of the few subjects on which Abercrombie and ex-Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann clearly disagreed.
Hannemann opposed the legislation. Abercrombie said he would have signed it.
Earlier this year, some Democrats worried the issue could weigh down some of their candidates. But the Sept. 18 primary election left civil unions supporters enthused.
Not only did Abercrombie win, they noted, but Democratic state Rep. Blake Oshiro, the bill’s chief sponsor, defeated Honolulu Councilman Gary Okino, who made civil unions a major issue in his campaign.
At least two other Democratic House incumbents who backed the legislation — Faye Hanohano and Rida Cabanilla — also narrowly beat primary challengers who opposed civil unions, said Jo-Ann Adams, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Caucus.
“I think Aiona will definitely try to make it a wedge issue. But if he looks at what happened in this campaign, he will make it so at his peril,” Adams said.
Aiona stressed that most people will vote on broader issues.
“Obviously to some constituencies, it’s going to make a difference,” Aiona said. “That’s the only issue that they have. But I think to the majority of people, it’s just one of many issues that will persuade them to vote one way or the other.”
Oshiro concurred, saying voters who make civil unions a litmus test have already decided whom to support.
“At this point, the campaign is about trying to make sure you can talk about the bigger and more important issues to reach those that are sort of independent and undecided,” he said. “Those things are the economy, protecting jobs and education.”