Obama Support for Same-Sex Marriage Ripples Through Hawaii Politics

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

UPDATED 5/10/12 8:45 p.m.

President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday that he supports same-sex marriage — and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's response that marriage is for heterosexuals — is big news around the world, including in Hawaii.

It could influence the presidential election, though it seems a safe bet that Obama will again carry the state of his birth.

But the leading candidates for Hawaii's U.S. Senate seat and two House seats differ on the issue. And it could make a difference in a close race.

Civil Beat asked Hawaii's congressional delegates and candidates for federal office, as well as the governor, where they stand. Of the 12 people we contacted, eight said they were in favor of same-sex marriage. Mufi Hannemann, Charles Djou and Linda Lingle couldn't be reached but all have opposed gay marriage in the past. Gov. Neil Abercrombie didn't address his personal view.

Perhaps most notable is Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. He is not up for re-election until 2016 but he holds great sway over fellow Democrats, both nationally and locally.

At 87, he's also in a demographic that has voted more heavily than other age groups against same-sex marriage.

Inouye's willingness to articulate his views on the issue came just hours after The New York Observer singled out Inouye and other top Democrats for staying away from the question of same-sex marriage.

"I think everyone who wishes to enter into marriage and start a life together should be allowed to do so, regardless of sexual orientation," Inouye said in a statement provided first to Civil Beat. "How can we say call ourselves the land of the free, if we don’t permit people who love one another to get married?"

Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is stepping down from the Senate in early 2013, issued his own statement in strong support of gay marriage after Inouye.

"As someone who has been happily married for 64 years, I believe every American who loves another person should have the same right to form the bond of marriage and commit to living a life together, for better or for worse," said Akaka.

U.S. Rep Mazie Hirono, who seeks to replace Akaka in the Senate after his retirement this year, called it "a great day in our march for equality."

Hirono's stance in favor of same-sex marriage isn't a surprise. She's a reliably liberal Democrat who in 1998 she spoke out against the Hawaii constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

But the congresswoman's willingness to articulate this viewpoint is notable because her campaign for U.S. Senate has in some ways avoided hot-button social issues like abortion and gay rights.

"President Obama's announcement in support of equal rights for gay and lesbian couples shows the kind of courageous leadership that puts him in the vanguard of expanding civil rights for all," Hirono said Wednesday in a statement provided by a campaign spokeswoman.

Hirono's main opponent in the Democratic primary, Ed Case, has said in the past that he opposes constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. Like Hirono's website, the issues section of Case's campaign site provides little information about controversial social issues.1

"This is not an issue in the Democratic Senate primary as the great differences between me and Mazie don't include marriage equality," Case wrote in an email.

It's likely that former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle will be the Republican who faces Case or Hirono in the general election, but she did not immediately respond to Civil Beat's inquiries.

In 2010, then-Gov. Lingle vetoed a Hawaii bill that would have allowed couples in Hawaii to enter into civil unions. Her successor, Neil Abercrombie, signed Hawaii's civil unions bill into law in 2011.

Asked for his reaction, Abercrombie, who spent 20 years in Congress and is the titular head of Hawaii Democrats, said this: "The President's statement speaks for itself."

After this story was published, his office sent over the following statement:

"I have long believed in respecting each other's differences and the core values of equality and fairness. The President’s statement speaks for itself. It is a statement that will have an effect beyond the headlines. It speaks for equality and against discrimination."

  1. Case was asked by Civil Beat to respond to the president's remarks and how it would impact the U.S. Senate race, not his specific views on gay marriage. Here is his full response: "I welcomed the substance and clarity of the President's decision. I have no doubt that this was, as he said, a personal evolution and not a political calculation. That's what we want from our leaders: to be honest with us, adjust with changing times and sometimes get out in front of that arc of history of which Martin Luther King spoke. This is not an issue in the Democratic Senate primary as the great differences between me and Mazie don't include marriage equality. I do look forward to debating Linda Lingle on this and many other issues in the general election."  

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