December 9, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Gay Iowa lawmaker fears undoing of marriage rights

State Sen. Matt McCoy (photo courtesy of McCoy)

HOUSTON — The only openly gay member of the Iowa State Senate believes marriage equality in the state could “absolutely” be in danger, despite a recent win solidifying a Democratic majority in the chamber for the remainder of the year.

State Sen. Matt McCoy, who’s served in the legislature since 1993 — first as a House member and then as a senator — said marriage rights for gay couples could be in jeopardy  in the 2012 election if Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal loses his seat or Democrats lose their majority in the chamber.

“We’ve got to make sure that we win some of those key seats that have allowed us to hold on to a majority,” McCoy told the Blade during an interview in Houston. “So we need to have a very strong Democratic year across the board, so that from the very top of the ticket on down, we’re going to need a strong ticket.”

McCoy made the comments Saturday during the 27th International Gay & Lesbian Leadership Conference sponsored by the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute.

Gronstal, whose seat has been targeted by Republicans in the 2012 election, has said he wouldn’t allow a vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in Iowa, which has had marriage equality since 2009. The Republican-controlled House has already approved such a measure.

The amendment would need to pass in two consecutive sessions of the legislature before it would be sent to voters, so the soonest it could appear before voters is 2014 — even with Republican control of both the House and Senate next year.

Concern over the future makeup of the Iowa Legislature persists despite a recent Democratic win in a special election assuring that Democrats would continue to maintain control of the legislature through next year.

On the upcoming Iowa caucuses, McCoy said some of the lower-tier candidates, such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), are doing well and there’s an anybody-but-Romney attitude in the state. But he added that Obama is in a strong position to defeat any challenger.

“I think Obama can beat any of them,” McCoy said. “I believe that, for obvious reasons, I think that Gingrich makes a better nominee for Democrats to beat, although Romney’s been all over the board on his issues. I think it’ll either be Romney or Gingrich, and, I think, of the two, I think, I’d rather run against Gingrich than Romney.”

A transcript of the interview between McCoy and the Blade follows:

Washington Blade: Sen. McCoy, can you tell me what you think the Democratic win in the special election and sustained Democratic majority in Iowa means for marriage equality?

Matt McCoy: Well, it’s a terrific win for us. Obviously, we know that by picking up this additional seat, we hold our majority, and, in addition to that, we can ensure that marriage equality will not be on the ballot at least through 2014. So we’ve got two consecutive sessions that this would have to pass, and that won’t happen under a Democratic-controlled Senate for the next year.

Blade: But do you think the next makeup of the legislature could threaten marriage equality in Iowa?

McCoy: Absolutely. I think we’ve got a terrific battle with our leader, Majority Leader Mike Gronstal. We’re very concerned that he win re-election as a Democrat. He’s personally worked with us to hold up control of that issue. In addition to that, we’ve got to make sure that we win some of those key seats that have allowed us to hold on to a majority. So we need to have a very strong Democratic year across the board, so that from the very top of the ticket on down, we’re going to need a strong ticket.

Blade: Do you think we’ll hear more about marriage from the Republican presidential candidates as we get closer to the caucuses?

McCoy: I think so. I think that they’ve done an artful job trying to dodge it a little bit. Their own polling is indicating that this issue is being more accepted widely among the public, and as long as that continues to occur, that is going to be a major problem for the Republican presidential candidates because as they take those extreme positions on those issues, people are becoming more and more disenfranchised with them, especially independent voters.

Blade: What’s your prediction for what will happen will those caucuses? As a Democrat, do you have a particular favorite?

McCoy: As an Iowan, I’ve had an opportunity to see them all come through, and the circus is definitely in town, let me tell you.

I think that right now, I have to take my hat off to some of the non-traditional candidates running the caucuses. I think Ron Paul is doing very well in Iowa, much better than is indicated in the polls. I think that [Rick] Santorum has a base of support among evangelicals, and I think [Michele] Bachmann has a base of support.

I think there is a very strong anti-Romney, or anybody but [Mitt] Romney attitude and [Newt] Gingrich has a pretty strong hold among some of the more traditional Republicans that are less evangelical-based.

So, I would say overall, it’s a tossup, it’s an early test in January. We’re probably less than, what, four weeks away from actually knowing where Iowa is going to come down on that issue, but at this time, I would say Romney is still not faring well in Iowa, and that’s a problem for him.

Blade: Who do you want to see as the Republican nominee, as a Democrat?

McCoy: I think Obama can beat any of them. I believe that, for obvious reasons, I think that Gingrich makes a better nominee for Democrats to beat, although Romney’s been all over the board on his issues. I think it’ll either be Romney or Gingrich, and, I think, of the two, I think, I’d rather run against Gingrich than Romney.

Blade: Now that Iowa has marriage equality, what do you want to see next in terms of LGBT rights for your state?

McCoy: There’s a couple of issues that I’m working on right now. One of them is related to adoptions and for gay parents having the opportunity to just simply list their name as Parent 1 and Parent 2 on the birth certificate as opposed to mother and father. So that is one of my initiatives right now.

That’s an issue pending before our state Supreme Court. I have no doubt that our court’s is going to make the right decision on that, but I’m going to try to help them out this session by bringing that issue out in the public.

The second issue that I’m working on is a decriminalization issue on HIV exposure. We have stigmatized HIV as a disease that’s a communicable disease, and put a criminalization with it that has, unfortunately, had the consequences of more than 36 people having charges filed against them in the state of Iowa of what could become a Class B felony if they’re convicted with $21 million a year in actual costs associated with that.

So, one of the things I want to see us do is treat HIV exposure, HIV transmission as we would treat any other communicable disease, and not stigmatize it among LGBT folks, saying, “Oh, it’s their disease.” It’s all of our disease, and we need to treat it with prevention, education and outreach, and that’s one of the initiatives I know that World AIDS Day — that they’re trying to reach out to people and really help bring the prevention and education and outreach back into our channels. And so, that’s something we could do a better job on as a community, so as a state leader, that’s one of my top initiatives in terms of our issues, LGBT issues in the state of Iowa.

Blade: And what about your plans for yourself? Do you have plans to run for office outside of the legislature at this time?

McCoy: I just received an opportunity to chair the Commerce Committee. I’m also chairing the Infrastructure Appropriations Committee, and I’m vice chair of the Appropriations Committee in the Senate, which means I got a lot of opportunity to do a lot of work and make a lot of decisions, and right now, that’s a great place to be. I can’t imagine anything else in my life right now, but, in the future, obviously, I want to keep the doors open. I’m a fairly young person, and I see the future is bright for LGBT leaders in the future, and so I hope that there will be a place for me to serve, and I hope there will be a place for other LGBT, out, elected officials to play a role in their state and national government in the future.

Blade: Thanks so much, Senator.

Watch the video of the interview here:

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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