Democrats get delayed victory on civil unions

CHARLES ASHBY/The Daily Sentinel—The eight openly gay state legislators, all Democrats, talk during a Capitol news conference following the passage of a civil unions bill on Tuesday. They are, from left, Rep. Joann Ginal, Rep. Dominick Moreno, Rep. Sue Schafer, Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, Sen. Pat Steadman, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, Rep. Paul Rosenthal and Sen. Lucia Guzman.

DENVER — About a year ago, Commerce City native Jessie Ulibarri sat in the gallery of the Colorado House with his family.

He had hoped to show them the workings of state government, and what could have been a great debate on why the Legislature should approve or reject a measure granting same-sex couples the right to enter into civil unions.

As a lawyer, the topic had professional implications. As a gay man, it was personal.

Instead, he and dozens of others watched helplessly as the then GOP leaders in the House blocked a vote on a civil union bill even though there were enough votes in the 65-member chamber to pass it.

“Because we didn’t see that happen last year, I ran and now I’m in the state Senate,” the Democrat said of his first bid for public office. “I ran as an openly gay (candidate). I was open and honest about who I was. This day is historic. Today, I can rest a little easier knowing that I have some protection under the law to care for my family and my kids.”

Ulibarri now is one of eight openly gay and lesbian state lawmakers, double the number from last year.

All of them gathered soon after the House gave final approval to an even broader civil unions bill Tuesday, sending the measure to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he will sign it.

“There were a lot of people who had seats in this chamber and who were in the gallery and in this state who said this wasn’t acceptable,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, referring to the second-to-last day of last year’s session, when that civil unions bill was killed. “People were motivated and wanted to see a change. We saw that after the defeat of this on the (House) floor. Through time, through donations, through calls, they changed the makeup of this legislative body. People spoke in November ... and now it’s headed to the governor’s desk.”

Last year, the GOP held a one-vote majority in the House. This year, Democrats control it 37-28.

The final vote for civil unions was 39-26. Two Republicans, Reps. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Carole Murray of Castle Rock, joined the Democrats in favoring it.

“I’m a Republican and I’m a conservative and I like this bill,” Gerou said. “We’ve got a lot of Republicans that think differently than other Republicans, and that’s what I like about the party. It truly is about individual freedom, which is what this bill is about.”

Though called marriage-lite by its opponents, the bill grants “any committed couple” regardless of gender rights similar to that of heterosexual marriage. That includes such things as workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits, protections from discrimination based on spousal status, victim compensation, end-of-life care issues, inheritance and visitation rights from hospitals to prisons.

Some opponents raised religious reasons for opposing the bill; others said it would lead to litigation over various issues, such as adoption and equal access.

“While it may be inevitable that civil unions will become the law of Colorado, in fact, commonplace by this time next year, this bill does not recognize the religious conscience of those who have entities that make child placements, that do hiring (and) that make decisions about who will instruct and raise and nurture children,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “I do believe that we will continue to visit and revisit that particular issue over and over again in the courts because we did not deal with it properly here.”

While supporters of the measure spent much of the rest of the day celebrating the victory, it was bittersweet for at least one of the eight gay lawmakers.

Five of them said they planned to take advantage of civil unions soon after it becomes law, but Sen. Pat Steadman won’t. That’s because his partner of 11 years, Dave Misner, died last year after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

“Some of us don’t get that opportunity,” said Steadman, who’s often cited Misner as his inspiration for pushing the measure again this year. “But there’s always the future. Never say never.”


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