UPDATED 5/10/12 8:45 p.m.

President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday that he supports same-sex marriage — and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s response that marriage is for heterosexuals — is big news around the world, including in Hawaii.

It could influence the presidential election, though it seems a safe bet that Obama will again carry the state of his birth.

But the leading candidates for Hawaii’s U.S. Senate seat and two House seats differ on the issue. And it could make a difference in a close race.

Civil Beat asked Hawaii’s congressional delegates and candidates for federal office, as well as the governor, where they stand. Of the 12 people we contacted, eight said they were in favor of same-sex marriage. Mufi Hannemann, Charles Djou and Linda Lingle couldn’t be reached but all have opposed gay marriage in the past. Gov. Neil Abercrombie didn’t address his personal view.

Perhaps most notable is Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. He is not up for re-election until 2016 but he holds great sway over fellow Democrats, both nationally and locally.

At 87, he’s also in a demographic that has voted more heavily than other age groups against same-sex marriage.

Inouye’s willingness to articulate his views on the issue came just hours after The New York Observer singled out Inouye and other top Democrats for staying away from the question of same-sex marriage.

“I think everyone who wishes to enter into marriage and start a life together should be allowed to do so, regardless of sexual orientation,” Inouye said in a statement provided first to Civil Beat. “How can we say call ourselves the land of the free, if we don’t permit people who love one another to get married?”

Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is stepping down from the Senate in early 2013, issued his own statement in strong support of gay marriage after Inouye.

“As someone who has been happily married for 64 years, I believe every American who loves another person should have the same right to form the bond of marriage and commit to living a life together, for better or for worse,” said Akaka.

U.S. Rep Mazie Hirono, who seeks to replace Akaka in the Senate after his retirement this year, called it “a great day in our march for equality.”

Hirono’s stance in favor of same-sex marriage isn’t a surprise. She’s a reliably liberal Democrat who in 1998 she spoke out against the Hawaii constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

But the congresswoman’s willingness to articulate this viewpoint is notable because her campaign for U.S. Senate has in some ways avoided hot-button social issues like abortion and gay rights.

“President Obama’s announcement in support of equal rights for gay and lesbian couples shows the kind of courageous leadership that puts him in the vanguard of expanding civil rights for all,” Hirono said Wednesday in a statement provided by a campaign spokeswoman.

Hirono’s main opponent in the Democratic primary, Ed Case, has said in the past that he opposes constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage. Like Hirono’s website, the issues section of Case’s campaign site provides little information about controversial social issues.1

“This is not an issue in the Democratic Senate primary as the great differences between me and Mazie don’t include marriage equality,” Case wrote in an email.

It’s likely that former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle will be the Republican who faces Case or Hirono in the general election, but she did not immediately respond to Civil Beat’s inquiries.

In 2010, then-Gov. Lingle vetoed a Hawaii bill that would have allowed couples in Hawaii to enter into civil unions. Her successor, Neil Abercrombie, signed Hawaii’s civil unions bill into law in 2011.

Asked for his reaction, Abercrombie, who spent 20 years in Congress and is the titular head of Hawaii Democrats, said this: “The President’s statement speaks for itself.”

After this story was published, his office sent over the following statement:

“I have long believed in respecting each other’s differences and the core values of equality and fairness. The President’s statement speaks for itself. It is a statement that will have an effect beyond the headlines. It speaks for equality and against discrimination.”

  1. Case was asked by Civil Beat to respond to the president’s remarks and how it would impact the U.S. Senate race, not his specific views on gay marriage. Here is his full response: “I welcomed the substance and clarity of the President’s decision. I have no doubt that this was, as he said, a personal evolution and not a political calculation. That’s what we want from our leaders: to be honest with us, adjust with changing times and sometimes get out in front of that arc of history of which Martin Luther King spoke. This is not an issue in the Democratic Senate primary as the great differences between me and Mazie don’t include marriage equality. I do look forward to debating Linda Lingle on this and many other issues in the general election.”

Reaction from Congressional Candidates

Other Hawaii Democrats also embraced the president’s position.

“Allowing persons of the same sex to commit themselves to each other — whether through civil unions or gay marriage — does not undermine the sanctity of marriage, it simply allows people who love each other to share in the same benefits and struggles of their heterosexual counterparts,” said Hilo attorney Bob Marx, a candidate for the 2nd Congressional District.

Marx, who had earlier this year opposed same-sex marriage, continued: “I was raised Baptist and later became a Catholic, and I want people to know that supporting same sex marriage or civil unions does not mean that Churches who view marriage as a religious sacrament between one man and one woman will ever be forced to perform ceremonies that are outside their belief systems.”

Esther Kiaaina, a former Office of Hawaiian Affairs attorney who is also in the CD2 race, noted that the district “is very progressive,” and so the issue of gay marriage would be in the mind of voters.

“I support it,” she told Civil Beat. “There is a lot of confusion about who the frontrunners are in the race. Diehard voters are going to vote in the primary. … I think voters will want to know whether a candidate is sitting on the fence, like with Mufi’s case, or whether it has shifted, like Tulsi. We have to unite the party from the top down; we can’t have inconsistency.”

Honolulu City Council member Tulsi Gabbard, who is running in the CD2 race, said in an email to Civil Beat: “My position remains firmly that same-sex couples should be afforded all benefits, privileges, and rights that the government grants to heterosexual couples.”

She congratulated Obama “for taking a strong stand on marriage equality for all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation.”

“I understand his journey, and stand with him on this issue,” Gabbard said.

A spokesman for former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who is also running in the CD2 race, hoped to have a response later Wednesday. In January, Civil Beat reported that Hannemann had come to accept civil unions — he opposed them in his 2010 run for governor — but remained firm on his position regarding gay marriage.

“I do not support same-sex marriage as I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said at the time. “President Obama shares the same viewpoint.”

If Hannemann remains opposed to same-sex marriage, he will no longer be able to liken his position to the president’s.

UPDATE In an email, Hannemann reiterated his belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman.”

Here’s his complete email:

“As I have said before, I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. However, I also believe that the decisions of the states which have permitted same-sex marriage and/or civil unions, such as Hawaii, should be respected, and I would oppose efforts at the federal level to override those states’ decisions.”

Civil Beat also did not hear back from former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, a Republican. He is in a 1st Congressional District rematch against U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa.

Djou has come out strongly against same-sex marriage.

In 2010, he said he believed that marriage “is a union between one man and one woman, period,” according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. But as a congressman that same year, he voted against his party to repeal the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that discriminated against gays and lesbian service members.

Hanabusa has not formally taken a position on gay marriage, according to a spokesman, but she has voted in favor of civil unions.

She was tied up in a meeting in Washington Wednesday. A spokesman indicated that Hanabusa would be able to provide a response on Thursday.

National Trend?

While a candidate’s position on gay marriage has in the past cost some supporters their seats in the Legislature, those casting a vote for civil unions did not suffer at the polls in 2010. This, despite a concerted effort by groups like the Hawaii Family Forum, which is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church in Hawaii, and the Hawaii Christian Coalition.

That was the same year then-Gov. Lingle vetoed a civil unions bill but also the year her successor, Abercrombie, easily defeated his primary and general election opponents who opposed civil unions. Abercrombie signed a new civil unions bill early in his first term.

But a civil union, though it affords the same legal rights and benefits as marriage, does not carry the powerful symbolism of marriage.

Hawaii is home to both progressive-minded folks that believe the state has been behind the curve on a basic civil rights issue and to religious conservatives who say civil unions and gay marriage violates scripture.

After nearly 20 years of debate, during which voters in 1998 instructed the Hawaii Legislature to restrict marriage to one man and one woman, a civil unions law was finally passed.

But the new law hasn’t ended disagreements.

The Legislature this year amended a civil unions bill this year to carve out exemptions for religious organizations that don’t wish to perform civil union ceremonies on their facilities. The law already allows a minister or official to opt out of a ceremony.

The measure awaits the governor’s consideration.

The Hawaii Christian Coalition, meanwhile, which also opposed 2010 candidates who voted for civil unions, held its annual Prayer at the Capitol May 3. The agenda included “praying that same-sex marriage will not happen here.”

In fact, many supporters of civil unions say that same-sex marriage is indeed the next goal for Hawaii. They are emboldened by a slow but growing trend in mainland states toward marriage — most notably, New York — though voters in North Carolina on Tuesday banned gay marriage.

The Obama administration’s ending of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and its decision to not defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is seen as additional evidence that the nation is evolving on matters of gay rights.

The Perry v. Brown case challenging California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California, seems headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court.

But a recent Civil Beat poll shows that 51 percent of those surveyed said same-sex couples should not have the legal right to get married. Only 37 percent said they supported the right while 12 percent were undecided.

Party Platforms

The Democratic Party of Hawaii‘s 2010 platform makes clear its support for gay rights but stops short of gay marriage:

We support the rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex community to equality before the law, including the right to equal relationship recognition, such as that set forth in House Bill 444 relating to Civil Unions.

Last weekend, delegates to party chapters on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island voted to include “marriage equality” in party platforms. Oahu delegates also voted to support changes to the U.S.immigration law so they do not discriminate against same-sex or transgender couples.

The full party will take up the platforms at its convention over Memorial Day weekend in Honolulu.

The 2010 platform for the Hawaii Republican Party, meantime, says nothing specific in its 2010 platform. Instead, it makes general statements about personal rights:

Freedom to pursue inherent American guarantees of Life and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Freedom secured by the rule of law, not by arbitrary judicial or executive decrees, provides all Americans an
equal choice to pursue a productive and meaningful life.

The platform also states, “Government exists to protect our God-given rights.”

The Hawaii GOP will hold its annual convention this weekend in Honolulu.

Check out Hawaii Elections Guide 2012.

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