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Narrow win may set back benefits fight

Gov. Palin says it's hard to characterize vote as a 'mandate'

Posted: Thursday, April 05, 2007

Republican legislators opposed to providing benefits for same-sex partners of state employees may have made a strategic mistake when they asked voters to weigh in on the issue, some say.

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Tuesday's statewide vote was intended to pressure lawmakers to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot, a move that requires a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Hoping for a powerful show of support, such as the 68 percent who voted in favor of a ban on same-sex marriage in 1998, they instead got a favorable vote of 53.4 percent, versus 46.6 opposed.

"It's hard to characterize that as a mandate," Gov. Sarah Palin said Wednesday.

Palin, who personally favors amending the Alaska Constitution, said it will be interesting to see what message the Legislature takes from such a close vote.

Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, a staunch opponent of same-sex benefits, said it was a mistake to go to voters without preparing beforehand. Opponents of the constitutional amendment mobilized more quickly than did proponents, Dyson said.

Benefits opponents were lucky to get even a narrow victory, he said, and it will be difficult for them to use the vote to move the constitutional amendment measure now being considered in the House.

"My guess is it won't make much difference," he said.

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Legislators throughout the Capitol said Wednesday they were examining first how the state voted, and then how their own districts voted.

"What it will do, for some folks, it will make them feel safe to do what they're kind of inclined to do anyway," Dyson said.

Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who has long fought against amending the constitution, said Tuesday's narrow vote signaled little statewide support for an amendment.

"You change the constitution when there's an overwhelming public sentiment," he said.

Even if an amendment barring benefits for same-sex partners were to pass the House, it is unlikely to pass the Senate, said Jeff Turner, spokesman for the Senate Working Group, the bipartisan coalition controlling the Senate this session.

Turner said the Senate will be so busy with budget, gas line and ethics issues that it is unlikely to take up the issue this year, despite the personal support of Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla. Green favors stopping the benefits.

"She won't be introducing an amendment. Let me put it that way," Turner said.

Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, who also supports an amendment, said he hopes the result will persuade the 26 legislators whose districts voted in favor of it to place the measure on the ballot.

In some cases, however, legislators who support an amendment represent districts that don't.

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Fairbanks, is one of the more conservative members of the Legislature, but his district rejected amending the constitution.

Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, is also from a district that voted against the measure. In Sitka, every precinct voted it down. So did Pelican, Elfin Cove and Port Alexander. Petersburg and Wrangell voted for it, Wrangell by an almost 3-1 margin.

Wilson was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for comment.

In the town of Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island, more than 90 percent voted for the measure. Only three of the tiny logging community's residents opposed it, with 29 in favor.

In 1998, Juneau voted for the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. On Tuesday, however, the city voted against amending the constitution by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin.

That included opposition in the traditionally Republican Mendenhall Valley-based District 4, as well as the more Democratic downtown-based District 3.

Final results won't be known for some time, said elections director Whitney Brewster. A large but uncounted number of questioned ballots and outstanding absentee ballots mailed by election day have yet to be counted, she said.

In one Fairbanks precinct, she said, there were 425 questioned ballots, and all but two wound up being valid.

Almost every voter was eligible, no matter where he cast his ballot, because there was only one question to be decided.

"You are going to see the majority of the questioned ballots counted," she said.

That will probably not be done until April 13, she said.

• Pat Forgey can be reached at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.



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