Kentucky Democrats remain split over gay marriage as two of their top officials publicly differ on whether to appeal a federal order that the state must recognize same-sex unions performed out-of-state.
Attorney General Jack Conway made an emotional speech on Tuesday, saying he must “draw the line when it comes to discrimination” and that Judge John Heyburn “got it right” when he ruled the state’s ban was unconstitutional.
But just minutes later Governor Steve Beshear went in the opposite direction, saying the state should be a part of the legal process to resolve the constitutional question.
Their disconnect is part of an ongoing divide among Democrats, which reflects urban and rural differences across the state differences as much as ideological ones.
“Jack Conway’s decision was both the right decision on the merits and a courageous decision politically,” says Congressman John Yarmuth, who is the only Democrat in the Kentucky congressional delegation. “And I’m very proud that he made. I think he recognized what many of us have, which is discrimination in any form is not right in Kentucky or anywhere else in country.”
“Steve Beshear is a friend of mine and I support his administration, and he’s been a great governor. But I just think he’s wrong in this case.”
Conway and Beshear’s decisions cannot be divorced from the larger political calculus. In next year’s gubernatorial race Conway is a rumored candidate and Beshear’s son is seeking to succeed Conway for attorney general.
Just last week, an anonymous pollster was asking conducting a survey around the Democratic primary in the context of the same-sex marriage ruling.
No Democrat has taken responsibility for the poll, but it demonstrates that someone is taking the time to consider how same-sex marriage plays out among primary voters.
State Rep. Gerald Watkins of Paducah acknowledges attitudes towards gay marriage are changing across the country, but he says Western Kentucky Democrats such as himself remain steadfast in supporting traditional marriage.
“Federal Judge Heyburn’s ruling goes contrary to the vast majority of Kentuckians feelings on same-sex marriage,” he says. “I know that it is changing nationally, the viewpoint is and is gaining more support it seems like as each year goes by. But the vast majority of Kentuckians and I would argue the vast majority of the General Assembly are opposed to Judge Heyburn’s ruling and support marriage between one man and one woman.”
In 2004, Kentucky overwhelmingly approved a ban on same-sex marriage as many other states have.
A recent Bluegrass Poll showed 55 percent of voters still disapprove of gay and lesbian couples being allowed to marry. Gay rights proponents argue that is a sign the state’s opposition is beginning to wane while others contend Kentucky is still firmly against marriage equality.
National and state conservatives groups such as the Family Research Council, who pressured Conway to appeal, have accused the attorney general of “ignoring the rule of law” and betraying his oath of office. Others have said it is “shameful” the governor has to hire outside legal counsel to appeal the case.
But the immediate cost for Conway could come the from rural Democrats siding with Beshear’s decision.
“The governor is more in tune with the people in Kentucky because we want that appealed,” says Watkins. “We should not be forced to abide by a federal judge’s ruling that goes contrary to a constitutional amendment approved by 75 percent of the public. Jack Conway is making a political move that he hopes will benefit him in the race for governor next year, but in reality I think it will wind up hurting him rather than helping.”
Other Democrats who supported the gay marriage ban concur, adding Conway should not be allowed to pick and choose which laws he can defend until the Supreme Court makes a final decision.
“I don’t believe because one federal court, lower court judge feels a specific way that that should establish the final decision in the state of Kentucky,” says Democratic state Rep. Robert Damron of Nicholasville, who authored the so-called religious freedom bill last year.
“The attorney general has made a decision that 70 percent of the people would disagree with. That’s a decision he has to articulate with a lot of the people as he runs. Time will tell where folks are on that issue, but speaking for my district the vast of majority of my people would support the governor’s action over the attorney general.”
Social issues remain a difficult dance for Democrats in red states where they must balance their more liberal base and donors in cities with conservative rural supporters. Unless they’re protected by an urban core like Yarmuth, Kentucky Democrats have tried to keep gay rights at arm’s length.
In Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race, for instance, Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes leads Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell in the polls. Yet she provided a cryptic response when asked where she stood on Beshear and Conway’s decisions.
From the Grimes campaign:
“Alison respects the thoughtful process Attorney General Conway took to reach his decision as Kentucky’s chief legal officer. Alison has been married for seven years and has stated publicly that she wouldn’t want to deny other couples the opportunity to make that same commitment. She has consistently made clear that while the Supreme Court has ruled that state sovereignty applies, churches should not be forced to recognize anything inconsistent with their teachings.”
“I think this is an evolving issue,” says Democratic state Rep. Joni Jenkins of Louisville, who voted against the referendum a decade ago in the General Assembly. “Polling shows that all people are split on this and we’re fairly split down the middle as a party. I feel as a I felt in 2004 that is was wrong to write it in our constitution. And if this continues to play out in the courts at some point they’re going to say to Kentucky what we did was wrong and unconstitutional.”