Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, May 7, 1997

Conservatives set targets
for next election

WHEN the Legislature finally approved the call for a constitutional amendment allowing the state to limit marriage to heterosexual couples, a time bomb set to explode at the 1998 elections started ticking.

At first glance, the amendment represents half of a finely drawn balance between the rights of gay couples and recognition of the overwhelming public sentiment against homosexual marriages.

The Legislature defined a category called reciprocal benefits, which would grant about 50 various marriage benefits and legal rights to couples who cannot legally wed. The proposed amendment to the Constitution would also only allow for the Legislature to limit marriage to a man and a woman.

It took three years of work to get this far, but it appears to be a workable, political compromise. The danger for the 76 legislative incumbents isn't in the bill or the amendment, but in who will now be drawn to the polls.

For the constitutional amendment to become part of the state Constitution, it must win more than half of the votes cast at that election.

Even as the Legislature was fluffing up the finishing touches on the constitutional amendment proposal, conservative groups and religious organizations were starting to organize. The word was going out here and on Maui and the Big Island that 1998 was the year to register and vote for the constitutional amendment.

Maui Democratic Sen. Avery Chumbley, who co-chaired the Judiciary Committee, already feels the conservatives' anger.

"I am definitely a targeted candidate," he said. Conservative groups, Chumbley and others figure, will go to tremendous lengths to organize, field candidates and go after incumbents.

As Chumbley says "This will have political ramifications for everyone running in 1998," because candidates will be asked if they support the constitutional amendment or the marriage benefits package.

Voters drawn to the same-sex issue because of religious feelings may stay to vote on other issues.

For instance, Bette Tatum, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, is looking at next year as the best chance for small business to expand its legislative base.

The business lobby, Tatum says, was not concerned about the same-sex marriage issue or other social items on this year's legislative agenda.

Instead, business wants change to tort reform, tax incentives and other business issues.

"We are looking for fiscal conservatives, especially in the Senate," she said.

ALTHOUGH she and her group aren't working with conservative religious groups, Tatum says she also has some candidates targeted.

"I won't say who, but we do have our sights set," she said.

In the past, social and fiscal conservatives have found a common support group within the Republican Party. Next year it is likely, at least according to Chumbley, that the GOP will also be running a series of upset-minded challengers.

The final part of the equation is the vote rturnout. Last year, fewer than half of those eligible to vote bothered to do so in many districts.

So if registration and voter turnout increase, past winners should realize that their voter base could be diluted with a flood of new conservative votes.

The clock is ticking.

Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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