State Sen. Chris Murphy, in his announcement earlier this week that he would challenge Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), touted his work on healthcare, the state budget and stem-cell research but omitted one issue he’s played a critical role in: gay rights.
The reason, Murphy explained in an interview, was that he doesn’t expect the civil-unions bill he helped shepherd through the Legislature this year to figure prominently in the House race, noting that Johnson’s position on gay marriage is close to his own.
|State Sen. Chris Murphy will challenge Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), above.|
“I’m not backing away from it,” said Murphy, 31. “But I’m not the leader … of those bills. I think maybe I was an early supporter of civil-union legislation, but I’m not one of the people who drives that agenda in Hartford.”
Anne Stanback, president of Love Makes a Family, a pro-gay-marriage group in Hartford, suggested Murphy might fear talking too much about gay rights, saying that many politicians, even those who back civil unions, worry about alienating conservative voters.
Marie Hilliard, the executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, which opposes gay marriage, appeared to buttress Stanback, saying that the reason the civil-unions bill had made it through the Legislature smoothly — with wide winning margins in the state House and Senate — was that lawmakers didn’t want a protracted, public fight.
“What I’ve heard repeatedly from legislators … was this was something they just wanted to go away,” Hilliard said.
Stanback said the critical question now facing elected officials is whether they support marriage or simply civil unions for gay couples.
Marriage, Stanback and other gay-rights advocates said, amounts to equal rights for gays. Civil unions are viewed, she added, as a “moderate, compromise position.”
“Marriage,” Stanback said, “is the goal.”
For now, Murphy is unclear about where he stands on gay marriage.
“I think civil unions make sense this year, and an incremental approach on this issue is probably the wisest,” he explained. “I supported civil unions this year, and we should take a while in the state … before we go to any debate about gay marriage”
Murphy added that Connecticut, as the first state to pass a civil-unions law without the prodding of a judge, “is already the most progressive state in the nation on this issue, and I think we went with civil unions rather than gay marriage this year as a recognition that there is a natural progression of this issue, and you don’t want to get too far out ahead of the curve.”
Johnson, for her part, is thought to be friendly to gays but “not there” on gay marriage, Stanback said. Brian Schubert, spokesman for the congresswoman, said in an e-mail message that “Johnson looks forward to a debate on the issues when the Democrats nominate a candidate.”
Schubert added that Johnson supports the civil-unions bill passed by the Connecticut Legislature. Like most other Connecticut lawmakers, Johnson voted for the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Schubert also indicated that the congresswoman does not plan to make gay marriage an issue on the stump.
“That’s for others to decide,” he said. The congresswoman recently won her 12th term, clobbering her Democratic rival by 22 percentage points.
While Democratic officials in Connecticut and Washington said earlier that several Democrats were considering a House bid, Murphy said yesterday that he doesn’t expect there to be a Democratic primary.
Stanback said Murphy need not worry about incurring the wrath of the anti-gay-rights lobby. In a race in which both nominees back gay rights, she said, groups such as the Connecticut Catholic Conference and the Family Institute of Connecticut are likely to stay out.
Hilliard, of the Connecticut Catholic Conference, said that her group does not get involved in campaigns but that she had detected “overwhelming” opposition to the civil-unions law.
Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, did not return phone messages.
On Tuesday, Murphy visited Washington to meet with Reps. Rosa DeLauro and John Larson, both Connecticut Democrats, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
DeLauro said, in an e-mail responding to questions, that she admired Murphy’s record in Hartford. But she indicated that her meeting with Murphy did not amount to an endorsement.
Asked if he expects to receive significant support from the DCCC, Murphy said: “We just had a very good discussion about their thoughts and my thoughts on the district. I don’t think they’ll make those decisions for a period of time.” But, he said, “they clearly expressed interest in the seat.” Murphy said he is aiming to raise between $1.5 million and $2 million for the race.