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Composure prevails in debate over civil unions

Observers say that opponents held back once they knew the bill was

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 4:11 p.m. HST, Feb 17, 2011

Since civil unions were brought back to the forefront at the Legislature in 2008, hearings and floor votes have been marked by spirited sign-waving, prayer rallies and mass canvassing from both sides.

This year, discourse on the measure was just as passionate, but also more composed, culminating with yesterday's Senate floor session giving final passage to the bill.

Supporters and opponents gave scattered applause throughout floor speeches, but refrained from catcalls and booing, as in the past.

The Senate's final vote, 18-5 in favor of the measure, was met with a 30-second standing ovation by supporters as opponents quietly left the chamber.

"Given that this particular civil-unions bill has been discussed and debated for three legislative sessions, it's been really rewarding to see the increased public and legislative support each year, and how the opposition seems to have decreased," said Alan Spector, co-chairman of Equality Hawaii. "You're just not seeing the opponents here at the Capitol lobbying against the bill the way we've had in previous years."

Many supporters called last year's election results a gauge of public support for civil unions, citing victories by candidates including Gov. Neil Abercrombie and state Rep. Blake Oshiro, both of whom faced staunch civil-unions opponents.

Abercrombie, in his campaign, pledged his support for civil unions and has promised the same as governor.

Former City Councilman Gary Okino, a civil-unions opponent who lost to Oshiro in last year's primary election, said after counting the votes and knowing where the governor stood, yesterday's outcome was expected.

"After we lost in the House (this year) we didn't think we'd win," said Okino, who did not attend yesterday's vote. "Going over to the Senate was kind of like a done deal already."

The House passed the measure by a 31-18 vote last week.

Neal Milner, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, said opponents may have seen the outcome as a foregone conclusion.

"People may have decided that they were going to live to fight another day," Milner said.

"The long and short of it is that it was pretty much a done deal, and that you were not likely to get people to do civil disobedience to try to stop it."

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