Gay Marriage Will Enter Swirl Of Issues In Pa.

Marc Levy
Associated Press

President Barack Obama’s support for gay marriage may become the latest issue for voters to sort through in Pennsylvania, a vote-rich battleground where the Democrat’s contest against presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney is expected to be close.

Obama’s statement Wednesday was met with open arms by proponents of gay marriage, while some opponents say they knew all along where the president stood, anyway.

Dave Norris, a retired steelworker and registered Democrat from the Pittsburgh suburb of Brackenridge, supported John McCain over Obama in 2008 and isn’t thrilled about voting for Romney. But he also doesn’t support the legalization of gay marriage and that’s one more issue that could push him toward the GOP candidate.

“I would hope it would hurt him, but in today’s society, there’s nothing sacred,” Norris said.

Equality Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-based group that advocates for equal rights of the lesbian, gay and transgender community, had already endorsed Obama and called his statement “one more historic step in making all of us truly equal.”

“Fairness is welcome at any time, and we celebrate both the president’s courage andleadership in his landmark announcement today,” the organization said.

In Pennsylvania, a 1996 state law already defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Republican-led efforts to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to ban same-sex marriage or same-sex unions have failed in the face of opposition by Democrats and moderate Republicans as recently as 2010, when the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee tabled a bill sponsored by conservative Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair.

Nationally, public opinion on gay marriage has shifted in recent years, with most polls now finding the public evenly split, rather than opposed. Six states — including neighboring New York — allow same sex marriages.

Romney opposes gay marriage.

In an appeal to supporters for money Wednesday, state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason called Obama’s position a “cold political calculation.” Then he changed the subject and said it is imperative to replace Obama with “someone who will lead on job creation and bringing our dysfunctional government back to health.”

Obama handily won Pennsylvania in 2008, and it will be crucial to his chances again: Harry Truman in 1948 was the last Democratic presidential candidate to lose Pennsylvania but win the election.

The issue could be a consideration for traditional labor-union Democrats in heavily Catholic areas or nonreligious Republicans who no longer see eye-to-eye with their party on non-economic issues like this one.

It is unlikely to be an issue for labor unions, a major source of Democratic voter outreach in Pennsylvania. The AFL-CIO will focus on its bread-and-butter workplace and economic issues, and may not even have a position on gay marriage, said Rick Bloomingdale, president of the labor federation’s Pennsylvania chapter.

In the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia, it won’t change the minds of most church-going black voters, said Bishop Leonard Goins, who presides over Chestnut Hill Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Philadelphia, and leads the Pentacostal Clergy Political Awareness Committee.

“We’ll vote for him because we’re African-American, but particularly on the same-sex marriage issue, he’s wrong,” Goins said.

Still, Goins flatly disagrees with Obama — “He’s wrong, he’s in error, it’s a mistake and it will hurt him.”

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter congratulated Obama for his “courage, strength and perspective” and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia said he believes that the president’s position will force others to confront the issue, which he thinks will help the president in November. But Hughes also worries that the issue will become divisive and demonized in the hands of TV advertisements funded by millions of dollars from third-party political-issue groups.

“He’s putting his political career on the line and everything that he believes in and everything that he’s fought for,” Hughes said.

Richard Smith, 80, who has volunteered for more than 30 years at the gay bookstore Giovanni’s Room, said the president should get more support from the gay community because of it.

Brian Sims, a Philadelphia Democrat who is poised to become Pennsylvania’s first openly gay state legislator next year, said Obama had been out of step on the issue not only with the Democratic Party, but with a growing number of Americans.

He doesn’t think it will affect Obama’s chances for winning Pennsylvania: Those who oppose gay marriage weren’t likely to be voting for the president anyway, he said, while those who support it likely were already in Obama’s camp.

Michael Geer of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Family Institute, which advocates for conservative social policies, pointed to the North Carolina referendum this week as just the latest example of people voting to ban gay marriage when they have the opportunity, even though they may not yet know the president’s position.

“Whether that changes their vote in November remains to be seen,” Geer said. “Add this one into the mix in an election that is expected to be very close and it could be a defining issue.”

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