Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said yesterday that he too would have vetoed the civil unions bill rejected by Gov. Linda Lingle, describing it as "tantamount to marriage."
Hannemann said that if he were to be elected governor in November, he would work with state lawmakers on expanding the state’s reciprocal beneficiaries law so gay couples could have additional benefits. But he said he would use his veto power if lawmakers sent him an identical civil unions bill.
"If that bill continues to be tantamount to marriage — between a man and a man or a woman and a woman — I could not sign it," he said at a meeting with Star-Advertiser editors and reporters. "I would not sign it."
Pressed on exactly what he would have done had the bill reached his desk as governor, he said, "I guess I probably would have vetoed it."
Until yesterday Hannemann had declined to say how he would have handled the civil unions bill. He has consistently opposed same-sex marriage but has also said he is open to greater rights for gay couples. After Lingle vetoed the bill this month, calling it same-sex marriage by another name, he agreed with the governor that the issue should be placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment for voters.
Hannemann’s remarks yesterday give voters a clear distinction on civil unions in the Democratic primary in September. Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Hannemann’s rival, supports civil unions.
Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the leading Republican candidate for governor, opposes civil unions and backs a ballot question for voters.
"I stand with Sen. Daniel Inouye and many others who say we must never tolerate discrimination," Abercrombie said in a statement. "HB 444 was not a same-sex marriage bill. The state Legislature has already defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Civil unions respect our diversity, protect people’s privacy and reinforce our core values of equality and aloha.
"The mayor has tried to have it both ways on this civil-rights issue. People want leadership they can trust, no matter what their feelings about HB 444. Leadership is taking principled positions and having the courage to stick by them."
The bill vetoed by Lingle would have given same-sex and heterosexual couples the ability to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law. Couples in civil unions would not have been recognized under federal law or by other states that do not have or recognize civil unions. Civil unions also would not have had the same social, cultural and religious significance as marriage.
Hannemann said that he would have reached the same conclusion as Lingle. Under the bill, civil unions would have provided gay couples the same benefits as marriage under state law.
"I need to see a bill that doesn’t cross that line," he said.
Hannemann said that, if elected, he would work with lawmakers and others to craft an expansion to the state’s reciprocal beneficiaries law, which provides gay couples some of the same benefits as marriage. If he and lawmakers are unable to come up with a compromise, he said, he is comfortable with putting the question before voters.
Asked whether he considered it a civil rights issue, he questioned how it could be solely about civil rights if the state Supreme Court left it to the state Legislature to decide in the 1990s.
The Supreme Court, in a landmark 1993 ruling, found that denying gay couples marriage licenses was discriminatory under the state Constitution’s equal protection clause, but sent the issue back to the lower courts for the state to defend. Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 that gave the Legislature the power to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
"If it was purely a civil rights issue, why did the courts punt this to the Legislature to make the decision on it?" Hannemann said. "I don’t understand that."
Hannemann, a Mormon who has said he prays over his decisions, said he wants to end discrimination against gays.
"At the same time I need to be true to myself and what I believe," he said. "But I want to be fair about it. I want to be open about it. And I believe that there are still things that we can do to ensure that benefits are extended to everyone."
Hannemann, who is of Samoan and German ancestry, said he understands and has experienced discrimination.
"I know what it’s like to be told, ‘Samoans are supposed to play football and basketball, clean your car at McKinley Car Wash.’ Or, ‘You’ll never be elected mayor,’" he said.
"’Unless you’re Caucasian, you can’t be elected mayor of this city.’ I know what it’s like to be told those things. Why? ‘Because you’re Samoan. And that’s where you should go back to — Samoa — if you want to get elected.’
"But I was born and raised here. I wasn’t born and raised in Samoa. So I know what it’s like. I know the stinging rebuke. And I don’t want anybody to feel that way."