Thursday, February 17, 2005

ROUNDHOUSE ROUND-UP: A BREAK FROM SOUND-BITE POLITICS

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Feb. 17, 2004

We live in an era of sound-bite politics. Policy debate too often is reduced to noisy Crossfire-like exchange of talking points and sloganeering. Public interaction with public officials frequently consists of hand-picked supporters asking pre-screened, softball questions.

Considering that, something refreshing happened at the Roundhouse this week.

Two state senators from the social-conservative wing of the Republican Party - Bill Sharer of Farmington and Mark Boitano of Albuquerque - did something that too few politicians do these days. They went out among the public and had civil, but very serious, conversations with people who they know passionately oppose their political philosophy.

The occasion was a Valentine Day press conference featuring GOP lawmakers talking about a package of bills they would encourage the institution of marriage and discourage divorce in the state.

Among the proposals: Reducing the $25 marriage license fee for couples who take marriage education programs; requiring 10 percent of federal welfare funds received by the state be used to encourage two-parent families; requiring divorcing couples with children -- or those in which one spouse doesn't want a divorce -- go to pre-divorce counseling classes; and spending $200,000 to community groups and religious organizations for a range of educational programs and advertising campaigns to promote marriage.

The issue of gay marriage wasn't even mentioned by the senators and other speakers at the press conference itself.

But it was very much on the minds of a majority of audience members. Monday also was Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Lobbying Day at the capitol.

Dozens of those who came to lobby against bills that would prohibit same-sex marriage - including SB 587, sponsored by Sharer - showed up to the Republican event on the west side of the Roundhouse. The speakers looked out to a crowd with large signs reading "Love = Love" and "All Love is Equal" and a poster with photos captioned "The Faces of Gay and Lesbian Families."

To fully appreciate this, you've got to realize how radically different this scene was from the typical Roundhouse "news conference." Usually these exercises are preaching-to-the-choir pep rallies where the audience consists primarily of true believers who applaud at all the right places.

This event had every potential of becoming just another screaming battle in the culture war.

It didn't.

There was a couple of instances of mild heckling from a few in the crowd. And a few times when a speaker said something about strengthening marriage, some audience members responded, "for us too."

"I didn't feel much hostility at all," Boitano said immediately after the event. But heck, he had just received loud applause from both straights and gays in the crowd when he concluded his talk by saying love is the most powerful force in the universe.

Sharer later told me he was prepared for much worse. "I thought they might throw tomatoes at us," he said. I think he was only half-joking.

Nobody threw anything, but several people wanted to let the senators know how they felt about same-sex marriage and how legislation would affect their lives and their families.

They approached both Sharer and Boitano, and some interesting conversations ensued.

Despite the friendly tone of Monday's encounters, it's not likely anyone changed his or her mind on the issue.

The activists will continue to fight Sharer's bill. And Sharer and Boitano still are going to vote to define marriage as being only between a man and a woman -- though Sharer held out the possibility he could back Sen. Cisco McSorley's SB 576, which would establish "domestic partnership" licenses that would give unmarried couples the same rights and benefits of married couples.

At one point Monday, Mary Ellen Capek, a lesbian who was married to her partner in Canada, asked Sharer: "How do we get past stereotypes?"

I can't help but think both sides made some steps in that direction that day.

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