Insider’s Story: How the Gay Marriage Vote Went Down in Vermont


Craig Benson Interview:

BB: Dr. Craig Benson is with us out from Vermont, he runs “Take it to the People”, the Vermont Citizen Coalition for Traditional Marriage. His group has been working on the marriage issue in Vermont since 1997. Dr. Benson is a local church pastor, businessman and political activist! Welcome Dr. Benson!

Dr. B: Good to be with you!

BB: So you’re actually out there in Vermont, can you give us a little background on the side before we get into the issue of what happened earlier this week?

Dr. B: Ok, Let’s see. Vermont was one of the unfortunate states this week that kicked in on the wrong side of the same sex marriage debate, there seems to be a bit of cascading bad news around. In our case it was the passage of a straight same sex marriage bill by our legislature and this is being touted as the first time a legislature has ever actually put same sex marriage into practice without a court ruling, though the folks who are seeing it that way are really having trouble remembering the court ruling we had back in late 1999 that actually gave us the opportunity to create civil unions and then opened the door for a same sex marriage ruling. So we’re still waiting for a pure same sex marriage bill to come through a state legislature without having the door opened by the court ahead of time.

BB: So with the court demanding that the legislature make room for civil unions, was that something that was supported by the people at the time or did it come out of left field?

Dr. B: It was out of left field. It was something that a governor and his crew, a fellow named Howard Dean, kind of made happen for the social good. They orchestrated a situation where when a same sex marriage lawsuit came to a local court, it worked it’s way quickly up to the state supreme court. When it got there, the ruling that came out was cleverly designed to open the door as far as the legislature could make it open without necessarily saying that they had to do same sex marriage, they said they could do same sex marriage, and at the same time said they didn’t have to make same sex marriage but they did have to make sure that same sex couples got all the benefits that married couples got.

At that time the huge outcry on the part of citizens who opposed any such thing, forced them to quote “take marriage off the table”, and then they cleverly borrowed an idea from Europe and came up with civil unions, where it was the first time America had to deal with something like that. And then they waited nine years and came back and at a perfect storm moment in Vermont’s political history, managed to squeak same sex marriage through. The bill was one vote shy of having been killed by a veto.

BB: Now that was a pretty close fight, I remember we were touch and go there all weekend, calling people and making sure we had all our ducks in a row. We had 52 votes supporting the veto going into the weekend and how did it look coming out of that weekend?

Dr. B: The veto deal for Vermont is that there are a hundred and fifty house members, the house and the senate both have to have a 2/3rds vote to override a veto. Our senate was such that it was a 25/5 vote, no one was expecting the veto to be sustained in that body, but in the house, they thought it would be very close because the vote on the bill had been 96/52 and a 50/99 vote would have given us victory.

It came down to a 100/49 vote and that gave them their one vote victory, with no other options for doing anything else besides that at this point besides as I say, Throwing the bums out, starting with a new group and repealing the existing law which would be a huge political undertaking.

BB: Yeah, it sounds like it. How does Vermont feel about it’s legislators at this point? It didn’t seem to me that it had a lot of groundswell from the populace, it was mostly just legislators.

Dr. B: It was probably the slickest, most carefully orchestrated and planned out political campaign that Vermont has ever seen in terms of several years of preparation and building up to it, and lots of money going into election races over several election cycles, carefully grooming and picking candidates to take over a seat here and there and finally getting to the point where they pretty much had a veto proof majority in the house and the senate on the part of the political left. When the time came to do the deed, they announced it, you know, something that had not been a campaign issue in November, and was not a priority in January and February, when the house came back in session, suddenly became a legislative priority two days after our legislators had been at their town meetings talking to their constituents. So they didn’t even have a clue then when we were having this state wide town meeting cycle, that anybody should ask their legislators what they should do about this bill because it wasn’t a priority and we’d been assured it wasn’t going anyplace. Then they announced it and Wham! Off it went and within three hours of the priority being announced the other side had slickly produced television commercials and radio commercials running on all the radio and tv stations in the state. They had half and full page ads in all of the major newspapers. They blew a tremendous amount of money in media and setting the stage for this to happen. It was politically extremely well done.

Drew: This is Drew from United Families International. A couple of questions, just to clarify for those who might not be familiar with the specifics of this situation, in Vermont, was this a constitutional amendment or was this a law passed?

Dr. B: It is simply a law. In Vermont, constitutional amendments can only originate in the senate in presidential election years if 20 of the 30 senators decide to start the ball rolling, so you need 2/3rds to start it in the senate and then the house needs to pass it by a 50% vote, and then two years later when you have a second biennial session come back, both the house and the senate have to pass it by a 50% vote. And then in the next general election after that, the question is put to the people. That is by the way, the closest thing Vermont has to a binding citizen’s initiative. The citizens can’t initiate it, they can just put into office people who are willing to initiate it.

Drew: Wow, that is really amazing, it really makes me feel grateful for the situation that we had out in California, that it wasn’t so extreme as it is in Vermont obviously.

Dr. B: Well, we may be on extremities out there, but we both suffer from Supreme Courts that have a little trouble being connected to reality.

BB: And the legislatures are the same way.

Dr. B: Yeah, and legislators that are not connected to the people.

Drew: They definitely have their own agendas which has been evidenced time and time again. Craig, I wanted to get your opinion on a quote, you may have heard this quote from Glenn Beck, apparently it was from yesterday’s show.

“Well, I’m not exactly the world’s leading advocate for SSM. I do
believe in the Republic. I want to celebrate what happened in Vermont
yesterday. Instead of the courts making the decision, the people
did.   Lawmakers were able to muster enough votes to override the
governor’s veto.  This is how laws should pass- through open, honest
debates between elected representatives and then the people decide, as opposed to activist judges out of the view of the public”.

As somebody who has been working so hard to do everything that you’ve been doing in Vermont, what do you think of this quote from Glenn Beck?

Dr. B: That’s a Glenn Beck quote huh?

BB: Isn’t that amazing?

Drew: Surprisingly enough.

Dr. B: He’s some sort of Libertarian or what? Well first he’s not connected with the facts out here. This whole deal went down in less than a month, so the amount of public discourse that was allowed was a little weak, and particularly since they timed it so during the one time of the year when the representatives are back mingling with their people on purpose, during town meeting, well when they announced that this was a priority two days AFTER town meeting, then that means that they didn’t WANT to talk to their people about it. They also managed to wrap it all up before anyone knows how much money they spent on it. It’s still three weeks before the reporting is required to come in on how much was spent to influence legislation. So, there’s a lot of hiddenness about this. The other thing about this is, and this is my schpeal on how well our legislators listen to us, is that when we said “Slow it down! We need to talk about this, you’re going too fast.” What we were told was, “We’ve been talking about this for nine years!” you know, since civil unions. “We’ve talked plenty, we’re just going to make it happen.”

Now let me describe for you what those legislators consider talking and listening. They didn’t listen for civil unions. The public polls were three to one against same sex marriage or anything like it, and they did it anyway. Then they set up two commissions for the following two legislative years, that by the way could not be amended, or have their membership changed by any succeeding legislature. Two commissions to review civil unions, and the only people that were allowed on the commissions were the people who invented and made civil unions happen, and they were supposed to give reports as to how well the institution was working. Then when they wanted to discuss the issue again a year and a half ago, they set up a marriage commission to investigate not whether civil unions were ok, but whether it’s time to upgrade civil unions to same sex marriage, and they filled the entire commission with people who had already announced to be supporters of same sex marriage. They embarrassed themselves so much by that that even the major newspapers in the state were starting to say, “Shame on you!” you know, for this obvious set up and kangaroo commission thing. And then, when they come to actually doing the law, they don’t bother to do it at a time when we can talk to them and they do it so fast we CAN’T talk to them. In the midst of that, they skipped or refused to do a non-binding referendum which is Vermont’s only option for letting the people speak on an issue. We can’t put something into law, but they can put a question to the state that measures the opinion. They refused to do that. From their point of view it was time for this to happen and they were going to make it happen. It had nothing to do with citizens and everything to do with the oligarchy that sits at our state capitol.

BB: Now you were out there arranging and trying to get people a voice with the limited funding that you guys have, but how did the vote actually come down? I know as far as numbers how it went but as far as the actual people that “Take it to the People” were targeting, and saying “These are the ones we are worried about,” or “these are the ones that have left the reservation”, was there political pressure at play here? How did it play out?

Dr. B: Oh, huge political pressure from the side of the Democrats and the leftists, we call them Progressives in Vermont. We have a three party system, there are the Republicans which are the minority party, the Democrats which are the majority and then there are the Progressives which are left of the Democrats, and they have enough power that they put a progressive, Bernie Saunders, into the U.S. Senate, from Vermont. So, it’s a very unusual political setup.

Now, the pressure. Here’s how we discussed it—Some of the legislators were discussing the day of the vote about the extreme pressure that had been put on some of their blue dog democrat friends to switch their votes, and they were saying, well, “You know, if you don’t do what the Democratic leadership wants, they throw you under the bus!” and I responded to that and said, “Well there’s the difference, the Republicans don’t own a bus!” because the Republican side did not pressure anyone to vote with the caucus, it was purely an issue of conscience. Even though the governor said there would be a veto and he had delivered on the veto, he not lobby any of the straying Republicans to try to woo them back to a party side. Meanwhile, the Democrats were either going after squishy Republicans, and promising them money and election help, or they were going after the Democrats that had strayed from the party and promising to run people against them in the primary, to never give them any money again and to take them out of their favored positions on committees, punishing them by putting them in the woodshed for the rest of the time they were in the legislature. So much so that we had at least one representative who came in pretty much in tears on the day of the vote because the pressure had been so intense over the weekend.

A lot of political pressure, a lot of buying, selling, threatening and intimidation, amazingly from the people who insisted that we put an anti-bullying law in for our schools, those very people were the ones doing the bullying on the folks in their party.