Gay rights in Iowa example of split among Republican party

The Republican party remains divided on multiple social issues.

Tyler Kingkade

Iowa State student fired from legislative position for Facebook post

Jessica Bruning didn’t think her personal stance on political issues would jeopardize her position as a clerk with Rep. Renee Schulte, R-Linn, in the Iowa legislature. However, after a Facebook post bucked the Republican party’s stance on the impeachment of the state Supreme Court justices, she quickly found herself out of a job.

She had been told to “tone it down” after the State of the Judiciary speech by Chief Justice Mark Cady, where she took part in standing ovations along with Democrats.

During the 2010 election season, Bruning worked for the Branstad-Reynolds campaign but often shared information on Facebook about Justice Not Politics — a bipartisan group formed to advocate retention of the justices. One of the group’s co-chairpersons included Republican Joy Corning, who served as Terry Branstad’s lieutenant governor at the time the Iowa Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law.

Republican Gov. Bob Ray — who Branstad served as lieutenant governor under before he made his own run in 1982 — also spoke out against the anti-retention campaign.

Branstad remained silent on the retention issue.

Bruning continued to share articles and information in support of the justices after the elections as House Republicans began talk of impeaching the remaining judges.

But after a Facebook post in January, the next thing Bruning knew she was let go from her position as a clerk. She said she currently cannot go into further details on the event.

The Republican lawmaker she worked for, Schulte, was a co-sponsor to House Joint Resolution 6 — a proposed amendment to the Iowa constitution to make marriage between one man and one woman as the only legally recognized union.

A legislative clerk is supposed to be a non-partisan position; however, clerks often work for a lawmaker who is in the same political party.

Bruning was raised in western Iowa, where conservative firebrands U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Bob Vander Plaats, hail from.

King was a sponsor of the original Iowa Defense of Marriage Act struck down in the unanimous Varnum v. Brien decision, when he was a state lawmaker. Vander Plaats is the unsuccessful three-time Republican gubernatorial candidate who led the campaign to successfully oust three of the judges that were a part of decision.

Bruning said young people are often told throughout their years in school to get involved and voice their opinion, “Then when I post a simple Facebook status, I get fired. They’re conflicting messages.”

Although she was never told in training not to criticize her legislator’s political party, she said she understands the implications. But she rejects the notion she should not be able to freely share her opinion on specific issues, especially when other prominent Republicans have shared her viewpoint.

“Maybe this is just me being naive, but I have a really tough time believing A: Every single [Republican that] disagreed with the Varnum decision wanted the judges to be thrown out, and wants them to be impeached,” Bruning said. “And B: Even if they do think that, I guarantee you not every one of their constituencies thinks that.”

Bruning is actually on a board with several other prominent Iowa politicians for the 50/50 in 2020 Project — a group aiming to elect more women to office in Iowa. The group includes former lieutenant governors Corning and Patty Judge, and Debi Durham, a Republican who currently serves in the Branstad administration.

As a Republican, Bruning worries about the negative effect divisive debate on social issues could have on the party, possibly pushing young people away from the Grand Old Party who may be socially liberal like herself.

“I hope not every young Republican that feels the way I do has to go through the things that I did by a simple statement of thought,” she said.

Dave Peterson, associate professor of political science at Iowa State, believes as more states begin adopting same-sex marriage and civil unions, it will become less of an issue. As it becomes legal, he said, the more the arguments of opponents of same-sex marriage ring a little hollow as the public starts to ask themselves, “How does this affect me?”

“The importance of social issues are strongest amongst the most wealthy,” Peterson said.

Peterson claimed there is mixed evidence of Republicans being able to use social issues as wedges to pull off middle to lower class voters in support of the GOP, who then pass economic policy that is bad for those middle to lower class voters.

Bruning said many people throughout Iowa know who King is because of his controversial statements, but many people in Ames do not know of their own congressman, Rep. Tom Latham. Bruning called Latham a “worthy candidate” and respects the Republican for his less notable stature, but said that shows the more controversial politician running off of public agony is heard louder.

“So if the only people that are getting out there and are speaking and being loud are people that are at those polar ends, then if you’re somewhere in the middle then you’re like, ‘Well, where do I fit in?'” Bruning said. “So it’s not a very inviting environment.”

Inclusion of gay Republican groups splits the Grand Old Party

It certainly hasn’t been an inviting atmosphere for Republican Fred Karger either.

Karger is mounting a campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Despite working for Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, Karger has been immediately written off and refused access to at least one debate because he’s gay.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, a huge annual gathering of Republicans, will take place next weekend in Washington, D.C. However, socially conservative groups, including many that supported the anti-retention campaign in Iowa, have been pulling out of this year’s conference due to the inclusion of gay Republican groups like GOProud.

The Log Cabin Republicans are worried Democrats will use this split among the GOP to target pro-equality Republican congressmen.

Karger claimed the push back is evident in the increased amount of registered independents in Iowa.

“Most of whom have left the Republican party for that very reason: the party is trying to be exclusionary,” Karger said. “That’s not what this country is about, that’s not what the political process and party is about; and particularly, just practically speaking as the minority party, we should be, ya know, opening up this big tent and allowing all people in.”

Karger said Republicans should be working together, building on similarities with core beliefs like smaller government, less taxation and individual responsibility; also, keeping government out of people’s lives, which he said the party has been hypocritical on issues such as civil rights and a woman’s choice on abortion.

A former Republican state senator, Jeff Angelo, spoke Monday at a public forum before the Iowa legislature in opposition of the current proposal to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions. Angelo had once led a legislature on banning during his 12 years in office.

Similar to Karger’s remarks, he said the proposal goes too far into peoples’ lives, contrary to the Republican stance against government intrusion.

“This debate centers around the devaluation of the lives of a select group of people,” Angelo said. “At its worst, we are asked to believe that our gay friends are involved in a nefarious debate; the outcome of which, supposedly is the unraveling of society itself.”

Karger called legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act or the Iowa Marriage Amendment an insult.

“It does tremendous damage to younger people,” Karger said. “I had a very difficult time growing up gay. I mean I knew I was; I didn’t quite know why I was different. It was incredibly difficult, and then as an adult working in Republican politics, I had to shield my gay life because I thought it would jeopardize my family — my relationship with them — my career possibly.”

Karger said he led a double life for close to 20 years because of it.

But he labels the kind of politics practiced by people such as Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage — who Karger heard say in a speech, “Gay marriage normalizes homosexuality” — as “hate,” and “homophobia,” adding there’s no place for it in the Republican party.

Angelo and Karger are hardly alone as Republicans who support either gay marriage or civil unions. The list includes: Cindy McCain, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, the entire Cheney family, Meghan McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Mark Kirk, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie and a man many speculate may run for president, Ambassador Jon Huntsman.

This split isn’t new, Peterson said. Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford on social issues in 1976, tapping into the anger against the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, giving rise to a new right-wing. Up until the Reagan Revolution, there was a weak correlation between political party and social ideology.

By the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans would hold distinct differences; in time for the 2000s to host string of debates on divisive social issues, including same-sex marriage and immigration.

“Parties don’t talk about issues that they think are losers,” Peterson said, adding that they think it’s going to help them get votes, either by persuasion or mobilization.

“I think there’s a reason Branstad didn’t talk about it much in the Iowa gubernatorial race, and there’s a reason why he hasn’t talked about it much yet,” Peterson said. “I think he’d like to see it go away.”

The death penalty and legalizing marijuana

Gary Johnson is sometimes referred to as a libertarian, although he would remind you he remains a Republican.

“But I’m flattered by statements that would say [my ideas] are libertarian ideas,” Johnson said. “Libertarians don’t get elected to office and I got elected to office. And I’m saying this in the context that these ideas resonate with people when they’re actually implemented.”

Johnson was a two-term governor of New Mexico who widely advocates legalizing marijuana.

He has been traveling the country under the Our America Initiative, a 501(c)4 non-profit, which prohibits him from engaging in personal political activity. But many are speculating he’s considering a bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, even if his ideas are of stark contrast to other candidates.

As governor, he privatized New Mexico’s prisons as a result of a cost-benefit analysis. In that same analysis, during a stop in Ames, he said he came to oppose the death penalty.

“It costs less to lock a person up for the rest of their lives,” he said.

“Naively, and this may sound crazy,” he said. “I didn’t realize the government makes mistakes when it comes to the death penalty.”

He said he supports the death penalty from a philosophical stance — an eye for an eye — but he doesn’t want to put one innocent person to death for 99 guilty people.

Along those same fiscal lines, he opposes the war on drugs; marijuana specifically. It’s “A through Z,” he said, not just the idea of generating revenue by taxing it.

“Half of what we’re spending on law enforcement, the courts and the prisons, and what are we getting for that? We’re arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country, we now have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, we have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world,” Johnson said. “There’s a different way of doing this.”

Legalizing marijuana can be found in the platform of the Iowa Democratic Party, although few lawmakers even discuss it, and Johnson argued neither party would be willing to seriously address it. Johnson believes support for legalizing marijuana is particularly at a tipping point.

“Can you think of any other area in public policy where there is that kind of disconnect between public opinion and the universe of politicians?” Johnson asked. “No where, no where. Not even remotely close. If 46 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, there ought to be 20 percent of politicians supporting legalizing marijuana; but there are none.”

Johnson said it’s the fear of not getting reelected which blocks any action, for creating a new way to handle controversial issues like marijuana. Although he believes this is an example that would do well with transparency.

But Johnson doesn’t believe debating a constitutional amendment on the definition of marriage or encouraging the ousting of three of the state’s high court judges is necessarily a waste of time.

“I think good government is the notion you can vote and get results as a result of your voting, so there’s an example, perhaps that’s really good government,” Johnson said.

Mainstream 2012 candidates fall in line on LGBT policies

Another potential 2012 candidate, former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said he would reinstate the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, banning gay service members.

Karger said he recently met with Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and discussed the similarities between difficulties in Paul’s presidential bid in 2008 and the troubles in Karger’s own 2012 campaign.

Paul often finished with 10 to 25 percent of the vote in primaries, eclipsing Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Mitt Romney all at least once. Yet, his campaigned was often dismissed and Paul remained the thorn in the side of other candidates during the debates, as he was the only Republican advocating an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — all prospective presidential candidates — aligned their support with the Iowa anti-judge campaign and are courting the same social conservatives ahead of the 2012 Iowa caucus.

Bruning criticized the campaign against the justices for being run on emotion, rather than logic. Bruning said she hangs out with fairly conservative group, who still disapprove of same-sex marriage but, “even if they don’t condone it, they tolerate it.”

That’s the big difference, she said, they don’t feel like they have the right to intervene.

“I’m a pretty firm believer things that are fueled by emotion are going to run their course and things that are fueled by logic are going to stick,” Bruning said. “Eventually the logic will win out.”

She likened the struggle for equal marriage rights to the challenges for civil rights and women’s rights, and this one, despite bumps in the road, would eventually run its course.

Bruning is in esteemed company on that notion, as Vice President Joe Biden recently said in an interview, legalization of gay marriage is “inevitable.”

Peterson conceded the inevitability as well. He said polling data shows younger voters in particular are much more supportive of gay rights, adding that he cannot imagine an event that would change that momentum for gay rights, although it could very well happen for legalizing marijuana.

“Immigration is along the same lines,” Peterson said. “The size of the Latino population is growing. Younger voters are less hostile toward Latinos that older voters are, much more supportive of immigration reform — that’s gonna happen. The Republican party’s choices on immigration are incredibly short-sighted, politically short-sighted.”

Karger hopes the Republican party will return to what he said is its pro-civil rights roots, with Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Just as well, Karger will be looking to the Obama and Paul 2008 campaigns. He admires the grassroots enthusiasm both candidates built, especially Paul and the amount of young people who showed up at the Conservative Political Action Conference for him.

“I didn’t expect it you know,” Karger said. “I thought it’d be a bunch of older women with funny hats and catchy campaign buttons, which I’m used to at these gatherings. But it was just this bright, young group — 48 percent of CPAC attendees were students. These were dedicated volunteers coming in, I thought, that’s what this Republican party needs.”