Pelosi endorsement of gay marriage plank raises stakes for Democrats

A move to put gay marriage in the Democratic Party platform at this year’s convention could prove problematic for Democrats as they seek to keep the election-year conversation focused on their efforts to right the economy.

The pro-gay-rights group Freedom to Marry called this week for Democrats to add a gay-marriage plank to their platform at the convention in Charlotte, N.C., in early September.


Two days later, the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was on board.

“I was talking about myself, not the entire Democratic Party, or speaking for the president,” Pelosi said in a news conference Thursday.

Obama, who opposed gay marriage in the 2008 campaign while supporting civil unions, has said his position is evolving, and many Democrats believe it is just a matter of time before he gets on board.

But there is no indication he plans to do so before his reelection in the fall.

“I hope the evolution continues,” said Pelosi, whose district includes San Francisco’s prominent gay community. “It always does, doesn’t it?”

For Democrats, the debate over the party platform injects a wedge social issue into an election they would like to be about Republican intransigence and Democratic efforts to create jobs and opportunities for a struggling middle class.

It also risks creating friction between Democrats from more liberal districts who need to appease their base and those from more conservative areas who want to steer clear of an issue that could cost them votes.

“The fight it is going to start is going to be fairly significant,” said a major Democratic fundraiser. “The Republican groups — [Family Research Council President] Tony Perkins and all — will raise a zillion dollars on the Democratic platform.”

Polls show Americans are about evenly divided on gay marriage, although the trend is clearly moving in the direction of approval.

Pelosi emphasized she was speaking for herself, but as the top Democrat in the House and one of the party’s top fundraisers, her remarks are likely to ramp up pressure on Obama to take a stand on including the issue in the platform.

The Obama campaign referred questions about Pelosi’s comments to the Democratic National Committee, which said it was too early to start discussing the party platform.

“This is an issue DNC members will address many months down the road,” said a DNC official.

But gay-rights groups aren’t waiting until the fall to applaud the calls for gay marriage to be made a priority for 2012 election attempts.

Freedom to Marry said it reflected a realization that a majority of Democrats and independents supported gay marriage, and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) said it would testify at platform hearings, as it has done at the last four conventions, in favor of adding it to the platform.

“Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also reflective of the opinion of the majority of Americans,” said HRC spokesman Charles Joughin.

But for Democrats in tight races, and for those hoping to secure Obama a second term, it’s a more complicated calculation.

Most areas that have substantial gay populations are urban areas that tend to vote solidly Democratic anyway, said Peter Brown, a pollster for Quinnipiac University, making it unlikely Democrats will win over many new voters by embracing gay marriage.

At the same time, they risk losing moderate Republicans and independents who might think Democrats are better on the economy, but are turned off by their emphasis on a social issue that is still divisive.

“It’s an unmitigated disaster for the Democratic Party,” said Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage. “This may play well in San Francisco, but folks across the country oppose same-sex marriage, including in key swing states.”

Brown said if the Democrats do put gay marriage into the platform, his group would be involved in races across the country pointing out what direction Democrats have chosen to pursue.

“You’ll see Democrats lose seats over it,” he said.

But what it could do for Democrats is galvanize turnout among the party’s liberal base, bringing to the polls disaffected voters who would otherwise stay at home. That could have a significant impact in swing states such as Florida that are key both to Obama’s reelection and to Democratic attempts to take back control of the House.

“It’s very simply stated: Does it get you more votes than it costs?” said Quinnipiac’s Peter Brown. “I don’t think we know.”

Mike Lillis contributed.