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Vermont legalizes same-sex marriage

11th-hour change of heart ends veto

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By David Abel
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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MONTPELIER - That it would be a tight vote was never in doubt, but the outcome was unclear until the roll call came to the end and Jeff Young, a gardener and freshman Democrat, switched his vote with a simple "yes" from his wooden desk in the chandelier-lit chamber.

His change of mind tipped the balance yesterday in the state House of Representatives, making Vermont the fourth state in the country to legalize marriage between same-sex couples - and the first by a legislative vote.

Young's move ensured that lawmakers had 100 votes - the minimum needed in the heavily Democratic 150-member Legislature to override Monday's veto by Governor Jim Douglas. The House's 100-to-49 vote was taken about an hour after the state Senate voted 23-5 to override the Republican governor. The new law takes effect on Sept. 1.

The final vote sparked cheers in the packed chambers of the State House, a gold-domed, granite-columned building that rises from this small city in the Green Mountains.

"I'm thrilled and I'm proud of Vermont for what we did and how we conducted this conversation," said Beth Robinson, chairwoman of the Vermont Freedom To Marry Task Force, which has lobbied lawmakers for years for such a law. "I think it speaks well of all of us. You don't get a supermajority like this without lawmakers sticking their necks out. I'm just really grateful."

Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples in 2000. It joins Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa in allowing gays and lesbians the right to marry, but the courts changed the law in those states, not the legislatures.

Representative Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr., a Republican from Bennington who voted against the override, said he hopes the new law inspires residents to vote against those who supported it. A majority of new lawmakers could vote to repeal the law, unlike in those states where courts changed the law.

"They're going to have to live with the consequences," he said. "This does not reflect the true values of Vermonters. It does not reflect my values nor does it reflect those of my constituents."

Some residents said they hoped the new law would be a boon to the state's economy.

"If more people are going to come here to get married, that could bring a lot of money to the state," said Donna Gaulin, 37, of Brookfield. "Anything that would improve our economy is a good thing. We don't judge people."

Others said they thought all the debate was a distraction from more relevant issues. David Goldstein, 43, of Montpelier, who is unemployed, said he would have preferred that the Legislature focus more on the economy. "I don't have a problem with this, but there are a lot of other priorities," he said.

In an interview in his office, House Speaker Shap Smith said he was confident he had the votes before the roll call. Asked how he persuaded several lawmakers to reverse themselves from last week's vote, in which only 95 lawmakers supported the same-sex marriage bill, he denied applying pressure or offering incentives.

"I made no promises," Smith said. "I asked members to respect the Legislature, which had already passed the bill overwhelmingly."

With Young, who represents St. Albans, one of the more conservative towns in the state, Smith said: "I talked about the issue and the work we had done. I explained how we have to work together and support each other."

Young said that in the past week he had received about 3,000 e-mails and hundreds of calls from people trying to win his support. He described his initial vote against same-sex marriage as a "gut decision," because he thought the bill "wasn't family friendly."

But when he realized how much his vote - which was among the last - would count, he said he thought, "Maybe this was the time to step to the plate."

"This wasn't the easiest decision, but I realized that as a freshman, I don't have a lot of chips on the table," he said. "I want to have an impact for my district. . . . This is politics."

Debbie Evans, a Democrat from Essex who also switched her vote, said she originally opposed the bill because "an overwhelming number" of her constituents were against it. "But I'm a staunch believer in the legislative process," she said. "I thought a veto [by the governor] wasn't appropriate, given the overwhelming support in the Legislature."

The governor's lack of lobbying made it easier for lawmakers on the fence.

Dennise Casey, Douglas's deputy chief of staff, said the governor preferred that lawmakers vote with their conscience.

"Governor Douglas believed that this was such an emotional, personal issue and that lawmakers needed to do what was in their best interests, what was true to them, and he didn't want to try to influence those decisions," Casey said. "He made that position clear from the beginning. It was a decision lawmakers had to make on their own."

She said he was not surprised by the vote, which lawmakers said was the Legislature's first override in 19 years.

"When Governor Douglas announced that he intended to veto this legislation, he said he expected he would be overridden and that the Legislature would not have advanced this if they didn't have the votes," she said. "He was not surprised. Democrats have the largest supermajority in the history of our state."

Democrats control 102 of the 150 seats in Vermont's House and 23 of the Senate's 30 seats. The vote passed in the House with the help of six Republicans.

Senator Bill Doyle, a Republican from Washington County who supported the same-sex marriage bill, in the end voted against it.

"I didn't want to override my governor," he said. "But I think it's good that this is over. Now we can go on to other issues."

The campaign to legalize marriage for same-sex couples was jump-started in Massachusetts, where the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2004 that it was necessary to fulfill the equal-protection clause in the state constitution. A similar judicial decision followed last year in Connecticut. Iowa's Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last week.

Similar legislative campaigns are underway in New Hampshire, New York, Washington, D.C., Maine, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Last month, New Hampshire's House of Representatives approved a bill to legalize gay marriage, and the Senate is slated to vote on it this month.

In California, lawmakers approved same-sex marriage in 2005, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill. Last year, voters overturned a court decision that legalized same-sex marriage by approving Proposition 8, which amended the state's constitution to ban such marriages. The California Supreme Court is considering a petition to overturn the ban.

In Vermont yesterday, Bill Lippert, a gay Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he was "deeply touched" by the vote.

"This will have a profound effect on gay and lesbian Vermonters and our family and friends," he said. "But this is really a triumph of people who care about our well-being."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.