How Ron Wyden became the first U.S. Senator ever to endorse marriage equality

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

In 1995, Josh Kardon was chief of staff to then-Congressman Ron Wyden - who was running for the U.S. Senate against Gordon Smith. In a reaction to my post yesterday about Wyden opposing the Defense of Marriage Act, Kardon offered up this memory on Facebook of how the soon-to-be-Senator became the first to support full marriage equality:

Reading this post in Blue Oregon brought back many memories of an extraordinary time in history for the nation and a still-young politician, Ron Wyden. As I was there as his Chief of Staff a the time, I thought I would use the rather imperfect medium of Facebook to record a little history.

Ron Wyden was, I believe, the first U.S. Senator to publicly take a position in support of the right of GLBT individuals to marry, an almost preposterously risky move as a political matter at the time.

The occasion came in the middle of the special election to fill Bob Packwood's Senate seat. Ron was asked the question about "gay marriage" in an interview that took place in 1995, as I recall. After the interview, he called me to tell me about the interview question and his response - that GLBT individuals should have the same rights to marry as every one else - at which point his political life flashed before my eyes. I called the DSCC for advice and was told that would make him the first Senate Democrat to take that position.

When Ron was narrowly elected and sworn in very shortly afterward in early 1996, even my old boss Barbara Boxer (nor Sen. Feinstein) had not yet been confronted with the question and had not yet taken a quoted, public stand. That makes Ron the first U.S. Senator to come out on the right side of history on this question, to my recollection.

To put his response and stance into perspective, the prominent and unanimous political advice from the campaign pros was to avoid endorsing "gay marriage" at all costs or you would lose your election.

At that point of the campaign, we had already been pummeled (and were losing, even in our internal polling) due to a very significant spending disadvantage and Ron freezing up in the then-famous "pop quiz." Even in Oregon, at the time, the question was not a close one, with the majority of Oregonians opposing marriage equality, and a majority of union households - traditional Democratic votes - in strong opposition. My now-friend, and strong gay rights advocate, Rep. Elizabeth Furse, voted for DOMA, even after Wyden came out for marriage equality and against DOMA, (again, not to give Elizabeth a hard time, but to put the times into perspective.)

Ron's opponent in the special election Senate race, Gordon Smith, had not only very publicly opposed marriage equality during the campaign, but he had embraced the endorsement of the institutionalized bigots of the Oregon Citizens Alliance and had voiced support for landlords to have the right to discriminate against homosexuals by refusing to rent to them (Gordon later repudiated many of his GLBT views and became a champion of several issues on behalf of the GLBT community, to his great credit).

I believe that history will show Wyden's totally unscripted, from the heart, constitutionally and morally right answer on marriage equality in those very dark days for GLBT rights, as the curve-buster on the mother-of-all pop quizzes.

Ron Wyden was the first U.S. Senator to get it right.

Right on.

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