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December 19, 2008

Referendum looms over partner registry

Cleveland--A domestic partner registry passed by city council last week appears to be headed for the ballot box.

Council passed the registry, Ohio’s third, on December 8. Mayor Frank Jackson has promised to sign it, and the measure would take effect 120 days later.

Meanwhile, a group of conservative ministers say they will try to stop it with a citywide vote.

The registry allows unmarried couples over the age of 18, same-sex or opposite sex, to register their partnership with the city. It is open to both residents and non-residents of Cleveland.

The registry confers no rights or benefits. However, registration will allow couples to access benefits offered by insurance companies, employers and health care providers.

Voters approved a registry in Cleveland Heights in 2003. The Cleveland registry, like Toledo’s created in 2007, are modeled after it.

The 13-7  vote in a packed city council chamber was brief, followed by sustained applause. But, with only two exceptions, support and opposition broke along racial and geographic lines. White councilors supported the registry. Black councilors generally did not.

In what often serves in Cleveland as a quiet proxy for race, members from west side wards supported the registry and most of those from east side wards did not.

Only two of Cleveland’s nine black councilors voted for it: Mamie Mitchell of Ward 6 and Kevin Conwell of Ward 9.

After the vote, Conwell addressed council, saying his support was about “humaneness” and his belief that we are all “first and foremost human beings” and should be treated equally.

An ‘unheard of’ move to stop it

Earlier that day, the measure’s opponents used a Finance Committee hearing to stage what appeared to be a filibuster.

Such a move is “unheard of,” said Ward 18’s Jay Westbrook, a 28-year council veteran and former president.

The registry had been approved by the Legislative Committee the week before. Twenty-nine people had testified for it then, but only two came to speak against it.

Like many bills passed by their assigned committee, the registry was also vetted by the Finance Committee, primarily to consider any budgetary concerns.

But opponents in Finance attempted to stop or stall it, grandstanding for the cable TV audience, and questioning every line of the already-approved ordinance.

Led by Majority Leader Sabra Pierce Scott, a former bank branch manager, opponents did this by offering amendments that were not germane to the ordinance, questioning language that had already been explained and approved in previous hearings, and arguing with attorneys over how words might be parsed, even when told that the meaning of the language was clear and used in other cities without a problem.

Pierce Scott, who represents the east side Ward 8, was also the sole vote against a pair of resolutions passed on November 17 to support the state Equal Housing and Employment Act and the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Pierce Scott offered amendments and demanded answers to non-sequitur questions to make sure, she said, “that it was clean, clear legislation to reduce the city’s risk of suit.”

At one point, downtown Ward 13 councilor Joe Cimperman, the ordinance’s sponsor, asked colleague Roosevelt Coats of east side Ward 10 why he was offering amendments to an ordinance that he was going to vote against anyway.

The Finance Committee went on that way for more than 2½ hours, nearly as long as the Legislative Committee took to hear 31 people testify a week earlier.

As the hearing dragged on, about a dozen ministers, white and black, came into the room. Some were carrying copies of an article published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life titled “Same Sex Marriage,” an interview with Rick Santorum.

A former Republican U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Santorum is known for a number of anti-gay statements, including his 2003 equation of gay sex with “man on dog.”

Black councilors lobbied by ministers

Before the Finance hearing, it became known that a politically active group of influential, mostly black ministers called United Pastors in Mission were starting to oppose the measure.

The group’s president is Rev. C. Jay Matthews of Mount Sinai Baptist Church. Matthews also chairs the local NAACP’s Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. United Pastors in Mission’s director is Rev. Marvin McMickle of Antioch Baptist Church, who is active in Democratic Party politics and was considered to fill the 11th District seat when Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones died.

Antioch has a noted AIDS ministry and McMickle authored the book A Time to Speak: How Black Pastors Can Respond to the HIV/AIDS Pandemic.

Neither minister is generally considered to be anti-LGBT, however, both clearly have a role in trying to thwart the registry.

Matthews and McMickle deny doing it themselves, but colleagues of theirs lobbied black, east side councilors, threatening them with recall if they voted for the registry, or with opposition in the next election.

Ward 1 councilor Terrell Pruitt was appointed to fill a vacancy created when Nina Turner was elected to the Ohio Senate. However, to keep the seat, Pruitt needs to win a special election on December 23 in what has become a close race.

Pruitt co-sponsored the registry ordinance, but voted against it.

Asked directly if he had been strong-armed by ministers, Pruitt said “Yes.”

Pruitt said he still supports the registry, calling it “a good concept, a good idea.”

Pruitt said the threats caused him to withdraw support for the registry and vote against it, and that it was purely related to his special election.

“I couldn’t risk having the ministers, who don’t have all the facts, on the pulpits preaching against me on Sunday,” Pruitt said.

McMickle said that he has no opinion one way or another about the registry and came to the Finance Committee hearing to “see what was happening and what it was all about.”

He denied taking any position opposing the measure, and wrote a letter to the daily Plain Dealer challenging a story that implied that he had.

Zack Reed, who represents the east side Ward 3, voted against the registry. But he said of McMickle, “He said things privately that are different from what he said publicly.”

Reed said he was not intimidated by what ministers said, but others were.

Reed said he opposed the registry all along because he “doesn’t think legislation should deal with private issues.”

“My job is not to deal with households,” Reed said.

Reed did, however, say he would vote for an ordinance to add gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination codes.

“I have been a friend to the LGBT community and I will continue to be,” Reed said.

Coats said he was “philosophically uncomfortable” with the registry. He did not know that opposite-sex couples could register, too.

“It would not have made a difference had I known,” Coats said.

However, Coats agreed that the ministers were having an effect on black councilors.

“The ministers in my community are dead against it,” Coats said.

Asked if he had been threatened with recall, Coats said, “I was not, but certainly the implication was there.”

Matthews said that originally he did not oppose the registry, but began to oppose it when he was not consulted.

“The more I read and talked, the less I understand it,” said Matthews, “and I spent a day talking to members of council and the legal department.”

Matthews was at the Finance Committee hearing, and said he does not understand why the ordinance was rushed.

“The rush created chaos,” said Matthews.

The registry ordinance was never on a fast track. It was introduced in August.

Matthews said his group is “not a monolithic community” and that not all members oppose the registry.

UPM will lead ballot measure

“It is our aim to put it back in front of council,” Matthews said of the registry.

Matthews said he was not sure how it would be done, but talked about putting the measure on the ballot for the public to decide.

“If Cleveland votes for the registry, it takes nothing from me,” Matthews said. “I could live with that.”

“There may be others who choose to do other things,” Matthews said.

Matthews said a group of ministers was meeting to decide what path to take to put the measure on the ballot.

“Council chose to exercise their option,” said Matthews. “Some of us have chosen to exercise our option.”

Asked if he would lead the group, Matthews said, “I’m not considered the leader. There are others who may be farther ahead.”

Cleveland’s charter gives two ways to put a matter before the voters.

The referendum option gives opponents 40 days to gather signatures equivalent to 10% of the total vote in the last municipal election. That was in 2005, when 102,283 ballots were cast, meaning 10,228 signatures are needed. If they succeed, the ordinance would be halted until a special election is held.

The other way is through initiative. This would involve collecting 5,000 signatures to put a new ordinance on the ballot repealing the one council passed.

The only difference is timing. A successful referendum drive would stop the registry from taking effect; an initiative--which can be done any time--would challenge what was passed whether it is in effect or not.

Matthews said the only decision for his colleagues is to decide which path to take.

LGBT community is mobilizing

The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, the out dean of Trinity Cathedral, met with members of Matthews’ group.

She will not discuss what was said. Her spokesperson Rebecca Wilson said Lind believes “conversations between faith leaders should be private and prayerful.”

Whatever transpired, however, did not dissuade the registry opponents.

Another group led by David Caldwell is organizing to protect the registry should it make the ballot.

Caldwell led Heights Families for Equality, the group that created the Cleveland Heights registry by initiative.

Caldwell, a nationally known expert on ballot initiatives, has since served as a resource and trainer for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and was the field director for the campaign attempting to defeat Florida’s 2008 marriage ban amendment.

Both groups are expected to launch campaigns within weeks.             |




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