I got a double-dose of Dr. Howard Dean in Des Moines yesterday at a health care reform event and a reception to honor Iowa House Speaker Pat Murphy and Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. (I'll write up the health care forum later today.)
The reception was organized by One Iowa, the leading LGBT advocacy group in the state. Dean spoke about his experience as governor of Vermont after signing a bill granting legal recognition to same-sex couples (civil unions) in April 2000. He remarked that supporting civil unions has now become the "compromise position" on the issue, but it wasn't that way nine years ago. He wore a bullet-proof vest for a time after signing the bill and didn't visit certain conservative areas of the state much during that year's re-election campaign. Dean was barely re-elected in 2000 with 50.5 percent of the vote after winning his four previous gubernatorial elections easily.
Think about that. Less than a decade ago in a relatively progressive state, the governor was wearing a bullet-proof vest after standing up for civil unions. I don't mean to downplay the political courage shown by Iowa leaders who have respected and praised the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling, because I know marriage equality is still a controversial and emotional issue. But it's striking how much more accepting people are of legal recognition for committed gay and lesbian couples.
In an interview with Radio Iowa's O.Kay Henderson yesterday, Dean said of marriage equality,
"This has just become a non-issue in states where there's a lot of neighborliness," Dean said. "Because even if people don't think, for religious reasons, that gay people ought to be able to get married, they're also respectful of their neighbors who may have a gay person in their family."
Radio Iowa's headline on this story is "Dean predicts gay marriage will be a 'non-issue' in 2010." That makes him seem much more complacent than he sounded to me at the One Iowa reception. Dean predicted that marriage equality will gain wide acceptance, but he reminded the audience of that old political saying, "Never forget who your friends are." He urged them to support the Democrats who have blocked a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in the state legislature, warning that if these leaders lose in the next election, "it sets back the movement."
In the context of not forgetting your friends, Dean mentioned that his presidential campaign could never have gotten off the ground without the help of the LGBT community. He estimated that in the early months, about 75 percent of the money his campaign raised came from LGBT donors who remembered that he stood with them on civil unions. That early money helped him hire a few staffers and open a few offices, laying the ground for his surge in support during the summer of 2003.
Speaking more broadly, Dean gave credit to all gays and lesbians over the years who have "stood up and said who you are," because it becomes much harder to say and think bad things about a group when you know the group includes your friends and neighbors. (Dean made a similar point in his Radio Iowa interview.)
In their remarks to the One Iowa reception, Gronstal and Murphy both gave credit to the "six brave couples" who put their names on the line in filing the Varnum v Brien lawsuit against Iowa's Defense of Marriage Act. Gronstal added that in holding the line against efforts to overturn the Supreme Court ruling, he and Murphy "didn't do this for the LGBT community. We did it for everyone."
UPDATE: Iowa Independent has more on last night's event.
SECOND UPDATE: In the comments at MyDD, Texas Dem notes that Dean's re-election in 2000 was less close than it seems, because his Republican rival only got about 38 percent, with a Progressive candidate winning the remaining 9.5 percent. Still, that was a much narrower margin than Dean's other gubernatorial election victories.