The coming battle to amend the Iowa Constitution

There’s nothing opponents of marriage equality can do to stop gay and lesbian couples from getting married in Iowa starting on April 24. Over at Daily Kos, Wee Mama posted information about getting a marriage license in Iowa for those who live elsewhere. If you would like to have a religious ceremony, I recommend contacting The Interfaith Alliance of Iowa for help in finding a sympathetic officiant, most likely to be from a United Church of Christ, United Methodist or Unitarian Universalist congregation. Couples wanting a Jewish wedding should contact Rabbi David Kaufman of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, if at least one partner is Jewish and the couple is open to raising children as Jews. Rabbi Kaufman has officiated at a same-sex commitment ceremony and published this blog post on Friday demolishing the arguments against legalizing gay marriage in Iowa.

The political battle over marriage equality will go on for a long time after wedding bells start ringing.

After the jump I will bring you up to date on prospects for amending Iowa’s constitution and the latest statewide opinion poll on same-sex marriage.

UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom of this post to read a very strong statement Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal released the evening of April 6.  

Statehouse Democrats met behind closed doors Monday to discuss the Iowa Supreme Court ruling, and at least a few Democrats support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. However, I doubt Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and House Speaker Pat Murphy would have released such a strong statement welcoming the court decision if they had any intention of letting a Proposition 8-style bill get to the floor of the Iowa House or Senate. Gronstal confirmed today that the Iowa Senate will not debate this issue this year, and I believe leadership will block any attempt to pass a constitutional amendment restricting marriage equality during the 2010 session.

Governor Chet Culver hasn’t said anything new about gay marriage since he dodged on Friday with a statement acknowledging strong feelings on both sides of this “complicated and emotional issue.” He is in an awkward spot. After saying in September 2007 that “it’s important we let the judicial process work itself out here,” the governor unwisely promised in January 2008 to “do whatever it takes to protect marriage between a man and a woman” if the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Republican politicians and bloggers in Iowa are already demanding that the governor keep his promise.

I am not worried that Culver will actively fight the Iowa Supreme Court ruling, though. Not when a large segment of the Democratic base and Democratic legislative leaders support marriage equality. In addition, Culver promised on Friday to consult with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller before reacting to this ruling, and Miller issued a strong statement later the same day that began as follows:

The Court has issued a clear and well-reasoned opinion. I believe that the Supreme Court’s decision is right, based on Iowa Constitutional law principles regarding equal protection. It is noteworthy that the decision was unanimous.

I wrote on Friday that two separately elected Iowa legislatures would have to approve a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage before the measure would go to Iowa voters. If Gronstal and Murphy are able to block such an effort in 2010, Republicans would have to win back the legislature in 2010, pass the amendment in 2011 or 2012, hold the legislature in 2012, and pass the amendment in 2013 or 2014. By then I believe support for marriage equality will be widespread in Iowa.

However, I forgot about something MyDD user political22 pointed out. Every ten years, Iowans vote on whether to call a Constitutional Convention, and the next scheduled vote on this matter is in 2010. Secretary of State Mike Mauro discussed this scenario Monday with Radio Iowa:

Under the traditional method of amending the state’s constitution, 2012 is the earliest an amendment banning gay marriage could be placed on the ballot. But Secretary of State Michael Mauro says in 2010, Iowans can vote to convene a constitutional convention to consider amendments to the document.

“If it were to happen, it opens up many possibilities to make all kinds of amendments,” Mauro says. “It’s wide open.”

If a constitutional convention comes up with an amendment or amendments to place before Iowa voters, a special election could be scheduled in 2011 according to Mauro. Mauro, the state’s top election official, says a constitutional convention could not rewrite the entire state constitution and would be restricted to proposing amendments — but there’s no limit on the number of amendments which could be proposed.

I forgot about this option because Iowans have never come close to approving a Constitutional Convention any of the previous times they’ve voted on the measure (in 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000). I contacted Mauro today for further information, and here is the process as he described it to me.

The question about calling a Constitutional Convention will automatically be on the general election ballot in November 2010. A simple majority vote in favor is all that’s needed to approve the measure. If it passes, the legislature would have to come up with a process for selecting delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and the statute provides very little guidance on how this would be done. The governor plays no role in these decisions; it would be up to the Iowa legislature to approve rules on selecting constitutional delegates.

The Constitutional Convention would meet sometime during 2011, after which the legislature would have to set an election date for the public to vote on any amendments that come out of the convention. Most likely, the special election would be held in late 2011 or early 2012. The amendments would not be voted on as a package. Each amendment would appear separately on the special election ballot. They could deal with almost any issue, from reducing the number of Iowa counties (the constitution currently stipulates that we have 99 counties) to consolidating school districts to giving counties zoning authority over large hog lots to various worker protections favored by labor unions.

Iowa Republicans would be taking a huge risk by going all-out to approve a Constitutional Convention in 2010. They may feel the public is with them on gay marriage; a poll that was in the field last week showed that just 26 percent of Iowans support gay marriage, with another 28 percent supporting civil unions. Perhaps a campaign on amending the constitution would be a helpful backdrop for Republican candidates for governor and state legislature. On the other hand, focusing on the ballot initiative would keep divisive social issues front and center, and Republican candidates running on social issues didn’t fare well in the 2006 or 2008 Iowa legislative races. Also, that recent poll showed a huge generation gap, with nearly 60 percent of Iowans under age 30 supporting gay marriage, and three-quarters of Iowans under 30 supporting either gay marriage or civil unions. Republicans need to weigh whether a short-term benefit in 2010 is worth the long-term damage to the GOP’s image among younger voters who have been trending Democratic.

A Constitutional Convention would bring other risks for Republicans too, because it could consider a lot more than gay marriage. It will be an uphill battle for Republicans to regain control of the legislature in 2010. Democrats currently have a 56-44 majority in the Iowa House and a 32-18 majority in the Iowa Senate.

If voters approve a Constitutional Convention while keeping Democrats in charge of the legislature, Democrats would be able to draft the rules for selecting delegates to that convention. Who becomes a delegate will inevitably influence the kind of amendments the assembly would consider.

Certain interest groups may not be pleased by a campaign to approve a Constitutional Convention. Kay Henderson did some scenario spinning at Radio Iowa today and suggested that road-builders might be afraid of losing the constitutional provision that earmarks all gas tax revenues for the Iowa’s Road Use Tax Fund. I wouldn’t be surprised if agribusiness fought the idea of a constitutional convention too, because there’s a lot of support in both parties for “local control” over large hog confinements.

I assume someone will soon poll Iowans on whether they would vote to call a Constitutional Convention to overturn gay marriage. I’m particularly interested to know whether Iowans who say they are for civil unions, but not gay marriage, feel strongly enough about that to support amending the Iowa Constitution.

Setting aside the constitutional discussion for a moment, many political observers are wondering how the Iowa Supreme Court ruling will affect the 2010 races. This will be a hammer for Republicans to use against Democrats in marginal state legislative districts, even if some of those Democrats themselves oppose gay marriage. I am not too worried, because no Democratic incumbents lost in 2008 after they voted to add sexual orientation to Iowa’s civil rights law. The overall economy and deteriorating budget projections are much bigger threats to Democratic incumbents in 2010, in my opinion.

As I mentioned above, Governor Culver doesn’t have a lot of good options now. He has no choice but to backtrack on his promise to “do what it takes” to “protect” heterosexual marriage from gay unions. Pushing for a constitutional amendment would produce a strongly negative response from much of the Democratic base. On the other hand, there are also Democrats and independents who oppose gay marriage and will want to see the governor do something. I hope he will use the unanimity of the court ruling and the legal advice he receives from the attorney general as excuses to revise his previous opinion on marriage equality. Republicans will try to hurt Culver on this issue in 2010, but the passionate opponents of gay marriage were never going to vote for Culver anyway.

Paradoxically, Culver could benefit from this controversy if it helps a social conservative win the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year. I believe the governor will win or lose based on economic issues, and he would have a tougher campaign against State Auditor David Vaudt or even Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey than against a hard-core “values Republican” such as Bob Vander Plaats.

The best scenario for Democrats would be for Congressman Steve “10 worst” King to run against Culver. I don’t know anyone from either party who thinks King could win a statewide election. King told the Omaha World-Herald on Friday that he is more likely to run for governor in 2010 if Culver does not “step up” to try to overturn the Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

By the way, David Waldman (formerly known as Kagro X) used King’s reaction to the Varnum v Brien ruling to mock King’s lack of understanding of the whole “checks and balances” concept. We Iowans learned long ago never to expect logic or coherence from Steve King.

Ultimately, it’s far too early to guess the impact of gay marriage on the 2010 elections. There’s no consensus among Bleeding Heartland commenters about how much this hurts Democrats. While some Republicans are hoping the issue will save their party, others are angry about what they view as a weak response by Republican leaders on this issue. I am confident that public opinion will shift toward supporting marriage equality when people see the sky didn’t fall because some couples who were already living together made it official. Then again, Nate Silver thinks it will be 2013 before a majority of Iowans are ready to vote to support gay marriage.

For now, my advice to fellow Iowa Democrats is “Don’t worry, be happy” about the Varnum v Brien decision. Even if I’m wrong about the potency of gay marriage as an electoral weapon for Republicans, some things are worth losing elections over.

UPDATE: I just got this statement from the Iowa Senate Democrats. The bold part was bolded in the original.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader

Mike Gronstal rejects amendment to reverse marriage equality

DES MOINES:  Monday night, April 6, was the first time the Iowa Senate discussed the unanimous decision by the Iowa Supreme Court to allow same sex couples to marry. During the discussion, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs made clear he would not agree to suspend the rules to allow a vote on an amendment to reverse the court decision.  

Without the support of Senate Majority Leader Gronstal, efforts to amend the Iowa Constitution can not move forward in the Senate.

Below is the text of Senator Gronstal’s response to Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley of Chariton .  It is also available on YouTube at:…

“One of my daughters was in the workplace one day, and her particular workplace at that moment in time, there were a whole bunch of conservative, older men.  And those guys were talking about gay marriage.  They were talking about discussions going on across the country.  

“Any my daughter Kate, after listening for about 20 minutes, said to them: ‘You guys don’t understand.  You’ve already lost.  My generation doesn’t care.’

“I think I learned something from my daughter that day, when she said that.  And I’ve talked with other people about it and that’s what I see, Senator McKinley.   I see a bunch of people that merely want to profess their love for each other, and want state law to recognize that.

“Is that so wrong? I don’t think that’s so wrong.  As a matter of fact, last Friday night, I hugged my wife.  You know I’ve been married for 37 years.  I hugged my wife.  I felt like our love was just a little more meaningful last Friday night because thousands of other Iowa citizens could hug each other and have the state recognize their love for each other.

“No, Senator McKinley, I will not co-sponsor a leadership bill with you.”

About the Author(s)


  • My favorite quote

    Thanks for the info on the Constitutional Convention.  Things might really get interesting in Iowa in the next couple of years.

    A little off the political topic, but I just had to share my favorite excerpt from today’s Register article about Sunday sermons on this topic:

    “We believe the homosexual lifestyle is wrong,” he [Rev. Keith Ratliff] said. “But we invite homosexuals to the church, and invite them to repent.”

    I bet all them gays will be rushing to Ratliff’s church next Sunday!

    • I saw that too

      How welcoming of him to invite homosexuals to come to his church to hear why they’ll go to hell for being true to who they are.

  • My Wife's Blog Entry

    From today is posted in a diary here on Bleeding Heartland and at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

    Since she wrote this in her capacity as a law professor commenting on the decision, I thought it might be of interest.

  • Good coverage

    Thanks, DSMdem for this thorough coverage of the statehouse on this issue.