Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie is sending the message to gay activists that they could have to wait four years or longer for civil unions if he is not elected governor.
Abercrombie supports a civil unions bill vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle that would have given same-sex and heterosexual couples the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law. Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, his opponent in the September primary, opposes civil unions. Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the leading Republican candidate, is also against civil unions.
"It’s quite clear that the other two candidates have no intention of moving forward on civil unions legislation," Abercrombie said last week.
All three leading candidates for governor have minimized the potential impact of the civil unions debate on the elections, believing instead that issues such as economic recovery, education and sustainability will dominate for voters. But civil unions brought more people to the state Legislature this year than any other issue, including teacher furloughs, and are a priority for many politically active progressives and religious conservatives who are organizing for the elections.
Abercrombie has won the endorsements of the Democratic Party of Hawaii’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered caucus and the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group.
Jo-Ann Adams, chairwoman of the party’s gay caucus, said she believes civil unions will be a significant political issue, particularly in the November general election. She said many gay activists will back Abercrombie in the primary and, if he were to lose to Hannemann, would shift focus in November to electing a veto-proof majority for civil unions in the state House and Senate.
"If Neil is elected, it’s much easier for us because all we have to have is a majority, because he will sign," Adams said. "If not, then we really have to focus on getting overrides in both houses and, frankly, a change in leadership in the House. We’d have to have more ducks in a row.
"It’s much easier if Neil gets elected. Plus, he’ll set the tone. He’ll set the no-nonsense tone that this is a civil rights issue."
Gay activists were disappointed that House leaders indefinitely postponed action on civil unions until the last day of session and then declined to come back for an override session after Lingle vetoed the bill this month. House leaders said they did not have the two-thirds’ vote necessary for an override.
Francis Oda, chairman of the Hawaii Family Forum, which opposes civil unions, also thinks voters will make civil unions an important issue. "It will make a difference, I think," he said. "Many people participated in the entire process — I’m talking about people on both sides of the issue — and they are not going to all of sudden just not consider it significant at the polls.
"I think pretty much everyone, on all sides, will reflect this whole process at the polls."
Abercrombie said Hannemann and Aiona have wrongly linked civil unions to marriage. "It clearly is not. The legislation doesn’t do that. Just because you say it does, doesn’t make it so," he said. "And from a court perspective, from a legal perspective, it doesn’t make it so."
Civil unions in Hawaii would not have been recognized under federal law and would not have had the same social, cultural or religious significance as marriage.
Abercrombie said the bill would have offered rights to both gay and heterosexual couples. Heterosexual women, in particular, he said, may be interested in civil unions to help avoid palimony issues involving financial and property assets.
"This is not a marriage issue, despite the best efforts of the other two candidates to characterize it that way," he said.
Hannemann and Aiona, like Lingle, have described civil unions as written in the bill as equivalent to marriage under state law. Hannemann and Aiona have said they would consider providing gay couples additional benefits through the state’s reciprocal beneficiaries law. They also support the state Legislature putting the question before voters in a constitutional amendment.