Vermont Election Is Ground Zero in Cultural Wars

In a rancorous campaign, angry conservatives in Vermont are trying to defeat anyone who voted for or supported the nation's first gay civil unions law. Gay rights advocates fear that repeal of the law could mean a setback for gay rights nationwide.

Take Back Vermont sign

MONTPELIER, Vt.-From Vermont's border with Canada to the Massachusetts state line, stark black and white signs proclaiming “Take Back Vermont” have sprouted amid the brilliant reds and oranges of fall foliage. The mass-produced signs are found in front yards, along roads and on the sides of barns, along with less prevalent retorts, such as “Keep Vermont Civil.”

But civility and tolerance are in short supply nowadays in the Green Mountains.

An angry reaction to the new law granting most of the legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, the signs are emblematic of the bitterest political schism in memory in this largely rural state.

The law is the first and only same-sex civil unions law in the nation. Since it went into effect in July, 861 civil union ceremonies have been performed, with about three-quarters of them for couples from outside the state.

Resentful conservatives call the law the culmination of a trend toward too much government interference. Other targets of the long-simmering discontent include state regulation of the environment and development, equalization of education funding among wealthy and poor towns, abortion rights and even “flat-landers,” a derogatory term for residents who are not native Vermonters. But one issue above all galvanized angry citizens into action: civil unions for gays and lesbians.

In this election season, conservative organizations have joined forces in an effort to defeat virtually all state legislators who voted for the measure and other candidates who dared to voice support for it. So far they have defeated four incumbent Republican representatives and one Republican state senator in the primary.

Because of the high stakes and high visibility of the Vermont election, money and support are flowing into the state from both the Republican and Democratic parties and from political action committees on both sides of the issue.

Foes of Civil Unions Predict “Take Back Vermont” Could Become “Take Back America”

Some advocates of gay and lesbian rights fear that if supporters of the civil unions law are defeated in November and the law is repealed, the result would be a setback to gay rights nationally. Earlier efforts to legalize civil unions in Hawaii and Alaska were blocked by state constitutional amendments.

The conservative Family Research Council says the Vermont backlash against civil unions will resonate around the country:

“The people of Vermont are not just quietly lying down while marriage is radically redefined by an out-of-control judiciary and legislature,” said spokesman Robert Knight. “The phrase ‘Take Back Vermont' may well become ‘Take Back America.'”

Supporters of civil unions have begun to organize and fight back. A half page ad in state newspapers early this month carried the headline, “Respected Voices for Civil Unions,” and quoted former Gov. Phillip Hoff, a Democrat:

“When I was Governor of Vermont in the mid 1960s, there were those who felt that African-American children from urban areas should be excluded from summer programs in Vermont. They were wrong,” Hoff wrote. “Now, some Vermonters are saying loudly that committed gay and lesbian couples should be excluded from the basic civil rights available to most Vermont couples. They are wrong for the same reason. Inclusion and tolerance are better than exclusion and fear. It's that simple.”

Supporters of Same-Sex Unions Law Are Targeted for Election Defeat

Efforts at political retaliation have focused on members of the legislature for passing the statute and Democratic Gov. Howard Dean for signing it into law.

Governor Dean, running for his fifth two-year term, is facing the political challenge of his career from Republican candidate Ruth Dwyer, who promises to repeal the law and has the strong support of the Take Back Vermont movement.

In a recent poll of registered voters, Dean held only a 10-point lead over Dwyer. About five percent of voters supported Anthony Pollina, an independent, liberal candidate, and 15 percent said they were undecided.

In the farming country of central Vermont, Republican Rep. Marion Milne was defeated in her primary bid for a fourth, two-year term. She is now running as an independent, despite the deep divisions in her district.

Milne said she knew when she voted for civil unions in April that she might lose her seat in the legislature, but she did not anticipate the ugliness and rancor of the campaign against her.

“I didn't expect the derogatory remarks, especially those made about me to my 13-year-old grandson, or the hurtful, very uncivil reactions of some of the voters in this district when I showed up at their door, hoping to talk about the issues,” she wrote in a letter to a local weekly newspaper. “To some, there is no discussion possible.”

The Republican who won the primary for Milne's seat was Sylvia Kennedy, a friend and former supporter. Along with thousands like her across Vermont, Kennedy views this as a morality issue about homosexuality.

“Why is it they feel this is a civil right? It isn't a civil right. They don't have something about them that can't be changed like black people-they were born with black skin,” Kennedy declared in an interview with The Associated Press.

In Northeastern Vermont, 73-year-old Rep. Robert Kinsey, who has served in the Vermont House for 30 years, also was defeated in the Republican primary because of his vote for civil unions. But he received enough write-in votes to win a spot on the Democratic ticket, and he is relishing the fight.

“What bothers me, what bothers a lot of Republicans or traditional Republicans, is that the religious right is holding the party hostage, not only statewide, but nationwide,” Kinsey said.

Patti Reid is a free-lance writer and former Associated Press correspondent based in New England.