Last summer, I wrote a column accusing Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of pokey driving in the passing lane. It was a metaphor, people—snooty writers use them liberally.
So, a lot of us driving behind Huntsman and hoping he’d speed up have hoped for more. Maybe one big symbolic gesture that shows he cares enough about Utah to step out and take a chance, regardless of what his Republican Party or legislative leaders think.
Wham! On Feb. 9, Huntsman decided to gun the engine. He endorsed the Common Ground Initiative, a package of gay-rights bills that the Legislature has been trying to slap into oblivion. There’s more: Huntsman supports civil unions for gays and lesbians.
“I’m not too concerned about the political risk” of endorsing gay unions, Huntsman told me in a telephone interview the day after his big announcement. “If the people of Utah want to run me out of office, that’s their right.
“The community needs to heal around this issue,” he said. “I’ve been in favor of the Common Ground Initiative because [the proposals] all make some sense. And this includes favoring civil unions. It’s time we try to bring people together instead of driving them farther apart.”
For those following at home, gay-rights lobby group Equality Utah proposed five bills designed to find “common ground” between the pro- and anti-same-sex marriage camps following Proposition 8’s passage in California. Taking a lead from LDS Church leaders who went on record supporting property, probate, insurance and other rights for gays in committed relationships, the Common Ground backers hoped the Legislature would feel the same way. Wrong. The first bill—sponsored by Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City—never even survived a committee hearing.
Since then, ultraconservative interest groups have hunkered down to kill the remaining bills. They even ripped off Equality Utah by naming their own fearmongering agenda “Sacred Ground.”
It’s pretty clear the governor saw where this is going. This state banned same-sex marriage four years ago by passing a constitutional amendment that will stick like superglue. But he sees a moment here. There is a chance to move humanely on equal rights for the LGBT community.
He’s taking it. The needle on the speedometer is inching up. “This will stimulate debate and discussion,” Huntsman said. Yet statewide polls consistently find more than 70 percent of Utahns oppose civil unions. If the far-right wing of his party (the ones who control the party at caucuses with the fervor of the Reich’s SS) dissed and mistrusted him before, they will certainly disown him now. “I don’t live my life by polls [except, perhaps, those that give him 80 percent approval],” Huntsman said, when I raised the issue of GOP political vengeance. “Some would lead you to believe there’s always a glib and easy answer to these hard questions in society. That’s just not the case.” Then, speaking like the father he is of young adults, Huntsman pushed the issue further. Bigotry toward gays is slowly, ever so slowly, melting away. “Especially among the younger generation, there is much more room for understanding and tremendous room for discourse” on the matter of gay rights, he said. And then, sounding like he has during his own efforts to liberalize some of Utah’s more bizarre liquor-control laws, he said, “You know, it’s pretty hard to legislate adulthood. I sense that people want to find ground for discourse and problem solving here.” I couldn’t get him to come right out and name the Legislature as the morality police here, but (wink, wink) I think we all know whom he was talking about.
We ended our interview and I started calculating how much political capital the guv has expended. Twenty percent? Fifty? It’s an iffy deal for him. I’d say he’s gaining speed—at least with those who count on him to do what is right. On that score I’d clock him at about 90 mph. CW Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
(Not) According to Jim: It’s been 180 weeks since Rep. Jim Matheson spoke to City Weekly.“I’ve been In favor of the Common Ground InItIatIve beCause [the proposals] all make some sense.”