Backlash In Vermont

Dean Wilson watches his second shot on the 18th hole during a playoff for the 2006 International title, in Castle Rock, Colo., Aug. 13, 2006. Wilson won the playoff on this hole.
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
A backlash has set in against some Vermont lawmakers who created the closest thing in America to gay marriage by approving "civil unions" for gay couples last spring.

In perhaps a dozen districts across Vermont, legislators who voted for the law face challengers in Tuesday's primary.

Most of those being challenged are the few Republicans who voted for the bill, which passed by just 11 votes and was required because the state Supreme Court ruled gay couples were being unconstitutionally denied the benefits of marriage.

State Rep. Marion Milne knew her vote to create civil unions might lead to her defeat.

What the three-term Republican didn't expect were the lost business at her travel agency, the lost friendships, and, most of all, the anti-gay slur directed at her 13-year-old grandson as he gathered signatures for her re-election campaign.

Milne, who keeps snapshots of her seven grandchildren on her Vermont House desk to remind her of why she got into politics, finds it difficult to talk about the slur. But in a letter published in a weekly newspaper in her district, she said she was surprised by her constituents' anger.

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

From the governor's offices to many of the 150 House and 30 Senate seats, races up and down the ticket are much more competitive in 2000 because of voter anger.

Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat who signed the law and has defended it, is expected to win Tuesday's primary but has watched his support plummet among voters and could face a tough race this fall.

The Democrats, who also control both houses of the Legislature, are particularly concerned about losing seats, though the primary contests largely are among Republicans.

In many of those contested races, civil unions are the only issue. The approval of marriage-style benefits for gay couples is what prompted Sylvia Kennedy to challenge Milne, a friend, in next week's GOP primary.

"I just feel that voting her conscience was just uncalled for," Kennedy said. "This was something entirely different. It felt like the rug was pulled out from under every one of us."

In the view of Kennedy and many others across Vermont, the state is condoning a lifestyle that should be condemned.

"As a Christian, I've been brought up to believe it as an immoral issue," Kennedy said. "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."

A poll by The Burlington Free Press and WPTZ-TV last week found that 54 percent of 621 registered voters questioned opposed the law and 49 percent said it would have a major effect on who they voted for this fall. Te poll, which had a margin of error of 4 percentage points, gave Dean a 41 percent favorability rating, down from 63 percent in February.

But even before the poll was conducted, a drive through Vermont's backroads told the story.

"Remember in November" warn bumper stickers, competing with "Vermont. Keep it Civil," distributed by supporters of civil unions. Stark white signs emblazoned "Take Back Vermont" dot the landscape, from yards to front porches to utility poles.

But the anger is not just over civil unions.

Carol Appleton, who has painted "Take Back Vermont" across the side of her Topsham barn and posted a sign in her window, said she and many of her neighbors are upset about other recent laws as well, involving land use, development planning, logging and education funding.

"They kind of didn't do what we wanted them to do," she said of lawmakers. "People who have signs want our government to listen to the people, that's all."

In rural Orange County, Milne is working hard to keep her seat representing six towns largely devoted to farming.

M. Dickie Drysdale, editor of the weekly Herald of Randolph, believes the Milne-Kennedy race will hinge on civil unions.

"We've gone over 15 to 20 years from one of the more rural, conservative states in the country to one of the more liberal," he said, "and there have been a lot of people who have been hurt."

The Vermonters for Traditional Marriage Committee reports that in a series of town meetings held in every Vermont county, voters opposed same-sex marriage by a three-to-one margin.

The effects of the backlash may extend beyond Vermont, since pro-gay rights legislators in other states are watching to see how the civil unions law is received there.