By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS – If you want to irritate the chairman of the Howard County Republican Party, just call the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage a Republican measure.
GOP leaders may be jumping through political hoops to carry the amendment through the Legislature. But, said Craig Dunn, “I don’t see this as a Republican-driven thing but a legislative-driven thing in a Legislature that happens to be controlled by Republicans.”
It’s a distinction that would be easy to miss. Past support for the amendment from conservative Democrats has fallen away. With strong backing from GOP Gov. Mike Pence and his social conservative allies, House Joint Resolution 3 may be the defining issue of the 2014 session in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
The measure would lock Indiana’s ban on gay marriage into the state constitution. As written, it would expand that ban to civil unions, though the House voted Monday to strike that provision, raising questions about the timing of a public vote on the measure.
But the debate is capturing the attention of national media – who describe it as a Republican-backed measure – at a time when other states are headed in the opposite direction.
Dunn and some other local Republican leaders – including mayors and county party chairmen – have spent months distancing themselves from the measure. They argue that it alienates young voters whom the party needs to stay in power in Indiana and reclaim the White House.
“We are missing out on a tremendous growth opportunity for our party if we say to a group of people, ‘You’re not wanted, you’re not welcome,’” Dunn said.
In an opinion piece published in the Indianapolis Business Journal last week, former Indiana Republican Party Chairman Murray Clark – a self-described conservative Catholic – bemoaned the fact that HJR3 is dominating the session.
“I am afraid that the generation of my 20-something children thinks Republicans are concerned with little else,” he wrote, before asking his party to turn to something more pressing – income inequality.
Yet, the resolution consumes more oxygen in the Statehouse with each passing day.
Well-organized opponents are protesting by the hundreds and directing thousands of emails and phone calls at GOP lawmakers. Well-organized supporters are blitzing the media with messages targeting GOP lawmakers who are wavering.
The opposition has made a dent. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee stalled an early vote on the measure, prompting House Speaker Brian Bosma to give it to another committee that passed it along party lines. Monday, during a full House debate, 23 Republican members voted to strip the ban on civil unions out of the amendment.
Two years ago, only one House Republican voted against the resolution when it came up for a required initial vote. This session, facing a final vote that would put the measure on the ballot in November, more Republicans are voicing doubts.
“This time we’re writing in indelible ink,” said Rep. Ed Clere of New Albany, the party’s lone holdout two years ago. “And that means a permanent stain on the constitution. I think more Republicans are saying, ‘We need to slow this down and talk about it.’”
Ethan Manning, 22-year-old chairman of the Miami County Republican Party, is tired of the debate. He said he worries that it overshadows what he calls the true GOP agenda – job creation and economic development. Both are critical in his rural county, which has lost well-paying manufacturing jobs and now ranks near the bottom in per capita income.
“I don’t hear about (HJR3) from people who aren’t in the ‘political class,’” said Manning, who helps run his family’s cattle farm. “Outside that group, I think I heard it talked about only one other time – in church, when somebody brought it up.”
Manning shies away from voicing an opinion on gay marriage. Instead, he said he supports the position of some GOP leaders in the Statehouse who want to let the amendment go to voters in November for them to decide.
Given his ‘druthers, the resolution would just go away. As the state’s youngest county party chairman, Manning has made it his mission to attract more young people to the party.
“It doesn’t make it any easier,” he said of the amendment.
A year ago, the state Republican Party dropped its support for the gay marriage ban from its platform, though Republicans nationally still support “traditional marriage” in their platform. Dunn said the decision reflected polling and a growing awareness that the amendment was polarizing among Republicans whose opinions on the issue were evolving.
Dunn is a member of the state Republican Central Committee, which helps shape the agenda for state and federal legislators. Last fall, the committee overwhelming refused to endorse the gay marriage ban during a private meeting, Dunn said.
Still, it was given legs by Republican legislators, who’ve made it a priority and once staged a walkout when the House’s then-Democratic leaders refused to call the bill.
Dunn said social conservatives in the Legislature have trumped the concerns of more moderate Republicans who want to focus on fiscal issues.
For the attention the measure is getting, it doesn’t appear to rank high on the list of Hoosiers’ priorities. The annual Hoosier Survey, conducted by Ball State University, reported that Indiana residents want the 2014 legislature to focus on creating jobs, improving schools and expanding access to health care. Gay marriage didn’t make the list.
“On the Ball State campus, students are talking about HJR-3,” said Ball State professor Joe Losco, who oversees the poll. “But when I’m in grocery store in Muncie, I don’t hear anyone talking about it. People there are much more likely to tell me they’re retiring early because they can’t find a job.”
Brian Howey, longtime chronicler of Statehouse politics and publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, said the amendment is becoming a defining issue for the state’s Republican Party.
“The GOP is in the midst of a 12-year lock on the governorship after 16 consecutive years of Democratic rule,” Howey said. “They’re worried about losing their grip.”
Some signs suggest it is already slipping. During the 2012 election, the socially conservative Pence – a prominent backer of HJR-3 – became the first Indiana governor since 1962 not to win 50 percent of the vote, finishing with 49 percent.
That worries Dunn. In his tenure as Republican county chairman in a traditionally Democratic stronghold, he’s helped elect three GOP lawmakers to the Statehouse.
“We’re going to have come to grips with this issue soon,” Dunn said. “As a party, we say we respect personal liberty and freedom from government intrusion. But this is big government run amok.”
Madison County votes Indiana House voted 52-43 in favor of removing sentence from House Joint Resolution 3. - Voting yes was Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson - Voting no were Reps. Jack Lutz, R-Anderson; Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield; Eric Turner, R-Cicero