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April, 23, 2010

Fisher shores up his support for full marriage

Cleveland--Senate candidate Lee Fisher strengthened his support for marriage equality last week, moving closer to his opponent Jennifer Brunner’s strong backing of it.

The comment came in response to the final question of an April 13 debate at the Cleveland City Club, asked by Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio.

“Mr. Fisher, you say you’re in favor of marriage equality. How does that differ from being supportive of same-sex marriage?” Kasler asked.

“Well, first of all, Karen, I believe it’s the same thing,” Fisher answered.

“I believe that the federal government has no business telling two people who are in a committed relationship and want to take responsibility for them the rest of their life that they can’t marry. It’s wrong.”

The response was a stronger stand on the subject than the candidate has made before.

Fisher, the lieutenant governor, and Brunner, the secretary of state, are facing each other in a May 4 Democratic primary for the Senate seat now held by George Voinovich, who is retiring. The winner will run against Republican Rob Portman in November, a former U.S. House member from Cincinnati and George W. Bush’s trade representative.

Both Democrats have longstanding relationships with the LGBT community and have used their political careers to help advance civil rights and equality.

The issue of marriage, however, and comfort with the LGBT political battles of today and the future, separate the two candidates somewhat, though less than a year ago.

Brunner has long believed that same-sex partners should have the right to marry. She has not put any qualifications on it, nor attempted any equivocation. It is a belief she has held publicly since 1988 when she stated it during an interview for a Columbus City Council appointment.

She believes that the right to marry is “elemental” and talks about it as a civil right, making no distinctions between the marriages of same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples in name, rights or benefits.

Brunner, a former judge, published her call for marriage equality in the June 10, 2009 Huffington Post.

“It is time to make that right available to all American couples, whether they are heterosexual or same-sex,” Brunner wrote. “This is a family values issue.”

She has been endorsed by the Stonewall Democrats of Cleveland, Summit County, Mahoning County and Central Ohio.

Fisher has been less clear on marriage. Over the past year, his position has evolved and shifted several times, likely prompting Kasler’s question.

Just over a year ago, Fisher told a reporter, “I am in favor of civil unions, but I have questions about marriage.”

The question arose then because of his answers to a Project Vote Smart survey that appears to have been done during the 2006 gubernatorial race.

The survey asked: Do you believe that the Ohio government should recognize same-sex marriages?

Fisher answered, “No.”

After the March 2009 civil union comment, under pressure from LGBT rights advocates--with a fundraiser set for June 14 at a Cleveland gay couple’s home--Fisher’s campaign put out a message they described as “our statement in support of gay marriage.”

“The government should be focused on creating jobs, lowering health care costs and moving to alternative energy, instead of trying to stop individuals who want to be in a committed relationship and take responsibility for each other,” read the entire statement.

Fisher took no questions on the statement, which caused daily newspapers to opine on whether or not Fisher supported marriage equality or just wouldn’t oppose it.

As LGBT groups lined up behind Brunner, Fisher’s position changed again slightly.

Fisher’s website now reads: “Lee Fisher supports marriage equality. Believing in equal protection under the law, Lee believes that government has no business preventing Americans from entering into committed relationships and denying them basic rights, such as hospital visitation.”

Mentions Ohio hate crime law

At the City Club last week, Fisher followed his marriage answer with another statement:

“You know, I wrote Ohio’s hate crime law. I defended it before the Ohio Supreme Court as attorney general,” Fisher said. “Peggy’s [his wife’s] brother died of AIDS and we led the fight against HIV and AIDS along with people here in town for 20 years. I am a strong supporter of the LGBT community.”

Ohio’s hate crime law, properly called the Ethnic Intimidation Act, was written by Fisher when he served in the Ohio Senate. It does not include sexual orientation or gender identity, which Brunner pointed out in her rebuttal.

“Ohio’s hate crime law doesn’t say anything about the rights of LGBT citizens,” Brunner said.

During his endorsement interview with Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, Fisher reportedly said that he would include sexual orientation in the measure if he had the chance to do it again.

The campaign did not make Fisher available, but when asked if the hate crime law reference at the City Club was a misstatement, spokesperson John Collins said, “No, it is not a misstatement.”

“You’re missing the forest for the trees,” Collins said. “What he’s trying to do with that answer is talk about a fight he’s been part of for a long time.”

“[Fisher] has a track record for working to end discrimination in Ohio,” Collins said.

Collins agreed to answer specific questions about marriage, but only in writing.

In the answers, Fisher’s position moved again.

“Does Lee Fisher support marriage between two people of the same sex being completely equal in name, in rights, in benefits (including federal, such as Social Security and ability to file joint tax returns) and stature as marriage between two people of the opposite sex?” Collins was asked.

“Yes,” he wrote.

Fisher now acknowledges that marriage equality is a federal issue and supports the repeal of the DOMA of 1996, and says he will work to pass legislation to bring about marriage equality as defined in the question.

Polls show that the race could be won by either candidate, and that most voters are still undecided.

Fisher has more support among Democratic Party inside players, and has raised more money because of it, but Brunner is connecting with voters in other ways and has stronger support among important constituencies, including LGBT Democrats, women, and progressives.

Polls show both Democrats ahead of Portman in the general election.

Fisher is on the web at www.fisherforohio.com.

Brunner is on the web at www.jenniferbrunner.com.

The April 13 City Club debate can be seen at www.wviz.org/cityclub.

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