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Lobbyists quietly advise GOP on gay marriage shift

Republicans on K Street are helping members of their party shift their stance on gay rights issues.

Kathryn Lehman, a top GOP lobbyist and partner at Holland & Knight, carries a list of 40 to 50 Republican offices in the House and Senate she visits on behalf of Freedom to Marry, a group that backs same-sex marriage.

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 “The issue is losing its toxicity, from a Republican perspective,” she said, mentioning that the list was a fraction of that size when she first took on Freedom to Marry as a client in 2011. 

Lehman, who helped to write the Defense of Marriage Act while working on Capitol Hill, is among a small group of lobbyists and organizations that are leveraging their conservative credentials to try to sway Republican lawmakers on gay marriage, transgender rights and the creation of a federal nondiscrimination policy.

The majority of Republicans in Congress remain opposed to same-sex marriage, and the party’s official platform stresses the preservation of “traditional marriage” between a man and a woman.

But some Republicans have begun to break from the party line. There are now eight Republicans in Congress who support same-sex marriage, split evenly between the House and Senate.

Advocates such as Carl Thorsen and Rob Epplin, who both represent the Human Rights Campaign, and Torrey Shearer, a director at Allegiance Strategies who represents American Unity Fund, are working to grow that number.

“My sense is there are plenty of members who would like to do the right thing, but it’s not because lobbyists are pushing them to do so,” said Thorsen, a founder of Thorsen French Advocacy.

When Thorsen hears that a member might be considering a show of support for LGBT people, he gets in contact with the lawmaker’s office to offer encouragement and walk him or her through how others have gone about it.

“These are human beings who view these issues on a deeply personal level, but at the same time, they’re elected officials, and articulating those views may be — understandably — complicated by their political situation,” he said.

Organizations like Log Cabin Republicans and Project Right Side are also pushing Republicans by providing data about changes in public opinion and, like lobbyists, offering lawmakers and their offices a “safe space” to talk about the challenges facing LGBT individuals. 

In addition, Project Right Side, founded by former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, makes the case for how gay rights align with conservative principles.

“We’re also trying to protect a party that we care a lot about. There has been societal change. Any political party that ignores societal change does so at its own peril,” said Mehlman, now the global head of public affairs at investment banking firm KKR, told The Hill.

“As conservatives, we don’t have to ignore it. There is a strong conservative argument for safe schools, for civil marriage, merit-based decisions at work.”

Some Republicans who have softened their position on gay marriage have faced a backlash from religious organizations typically aligned with the GOP.

After Florida Republican Rep. David Jolly said last week that he believed states should honor same-sex marriages, despite it being “contrary to his Christian beliefs,” a conservative organization asked him to apologize.

“We call upon you to publicly apologize for this mistake and hold fast to your original position that states should define marriage as it has always been, the union of one man and one woman only,” read a letter distributed by the Florida Family Policy Council. “We also challenge you to not cower to the pressure, demands and intimidation of homosexual activists.”

Despite the opposition of religious conservatives, advocates are convinced the tide is turning in their favor.

“I have had meetings with some of the most rock-ribbed social conservatives in Washington,” said Gregory Angelo, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans. “A lot of them see the writing on the wall, they see the direction the country is headed.”

A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this year showed that more than 60 percent of Republicans under the age of 30 support gay marriage; 43 percent of those aged 30–49 were in favor. 

Epplin, a longtime Capitol Hill aide, said the political climate has changed quickly both nationally and in Congress. He left the Capitol in 2012 for Gephardt Government Affairs, and the Human Rights Campaign was one of his first clients.

In the last 15 years, he said, more Republican staffers and lobbyists have come together in the effort, largely matching the shift in public opinion.

“There was a realization that the Republicans have a role in this,” he said. “You need both sides to get something done.”

Epplin worked most recently for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted for the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” supported employer anti-discrimination legislation and endorsed same-sex marriage in June.

“I was always her LD [legislative director] first,” Epplin said. “I wasn’t her gay LD.”

“Had we had conversations about this? Sure, but the real conversations [that made a difference] with her came from … the people that she knew in Maine that were close personal friends,” he added.

There are now 31 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have legalized same-sex marriage or seen a ban overturned in court. The most recent decision came Monday in Virginia, where the 4th Circuit tossed out a gay marriage ban.

“We are winning faster than I can keep track of,” one advocate told The Hill in an email.

While lobbyists are encouraged, they said there is a steep climb ahead.

Despite more than two decades of lobbying, Congress hasn’t passed legislation that would protect gay or transgender individuals from being fired because of their sexual identity.

“People understand that right now gay individuals largely do not have the right to marry, whereas most Americans believe employment protections for LGBT people already exist,” said Angelo of the Log Cabin Republicans. “A lot of work we do is reminding people that it does not.”

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would provide those protections, is largely seen as the next step in LGBT advocacy. Other issues, such as the treatment of gays and lesbians in countries such as Russia and Uganda, are also on the agenda. 

“I believe that this is the civil rights movement of our generation,” said Thorsen, whose sister recently married her longtime partner, “and I’m proud that I’m on the right side of this, and I’m proud that I can tell my grandchildren that I was there when it mattered.”

 
This article was updated at 11:30 a.m.