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Delaware Passes Civil Unions: The Backstory From Local Advocates

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Yesterday, the Delaware House of Representatives passed a landmark Civil Unions bill by a 26 to 15 vote. The bill is on its way to Governor Jack Markell, who has pledged to sign the legislation. HRC has been working closely with the newly formed Equality Delaware on this legislation and in the aftermath of this major vote, I was able to take a moment to discuss the victory with Equality Delaware President Lisa Goodman.

Joe: It's so impressive that Delaware was able to take up and pass this bill in 4 months. How did the victory happen?

Lisa: Equality Delaware was formed by a group of advocates who have been working on equality issues for almost two decades. During those efforts, and particularly during the 11 year effort to pass a non-discrimination bill, advocates worked tirelessly to help legislators understand that our families and our concerns are no different than theirs. Legislators got to know us as people, and once they did, it became hard for them to look at LGBT concerns with anything other than understanding. Many of them became our dear friends, and many of those friends are now in leadership.

Equality Delaware's efforts began by building on these past efforts. Specifically in reference to the civil union bill, we worked closely with HRC's Sarah Warbelow to draft a comprehensive bill. We also worked with our Senate and House sponsors, and with leadership of both chambers. Having leadership support allowed us to navigate tricky procedural and timing issues, as well as to have the best chance of getting the bill out of committee in both chambers. Additionally, our Governor Jack Markell pledged his support and provided tremendous leadership on this basic issue of fairness.

Joe: Why did you pursue civil unions instead of marriage?

Lisa: We carefully considered this question, and it was not a decision we made lightly. We spent a lot of time discussing the issue and looking at efforts - both successful and unsuccessful - in other states. We analyzed our projected vote count and concluded that we had the votes to pass a civil union bill. We were clear that we did not have the votes to pass a marriage bill. The civil union bill that we drafted (and passed!) provides for all of the protections, benefits, and obligations of marriage that are available under Delaware law. We were keenly aware that same-sex couples in Delaware need these protections now, and we were able to secure them through this legislation.

Joe: The bill you passed is the only one in the country to provide protections for couples who leave the state. Why is this important?

Lisa: There are same-sex couples who are in very difficult circumstances when it comes to divorce. Couples who move to a state that does not recognize their marriage or civil union cannot dissolve that relationship. We felt it was critical that our bill address this. The bill provides that if one or both parties to a civil union solemnized in Delaware move to a state that will not grant them a divorce, an action for divorce may be filed in Delaware. Without this provision, couples must otherwise remain in an unhappy civil union or to move to a jurisdiction that will dissolve it. We hope this provision will become a model for civil union legislation in other states.

Joe: How did you deal with opposition to the bill?

Lisa: We paid attention to what the opposition has done elsewhere, and took that into consideration as we planned our efforts. We determined to run our own game plan, not to allow them to dictate our strategy. We also prepared for their likely tactics, so that, for example, when they declared "Defend Marriage Day," and bused in opponents from various churches, we had a plan in place and weren't forced to improvise in the heat of the moment.

We did very deliberate outreach in key legislative districts to encourage supporters in those districts to contact their legislators. We had an amazing volunteer phone banking team who executed this part of our strategy. We were thus able to combat the opposition's relentless anti-gay robo-calls. We also had volunteer lobbying and communications teams. Every time we needed something new, someone came forward who had the exact skills we needed.

Perhaps most importantly, we all got in the boat and rowed in the same direction. Despite having a lot of "Type A" personalities, everyone left their ego at home and worked for the same goal. Once we agreed on our plan, even though everyone didn't agree on every part of the plan, the whole team worked to execute what had been agreed upon.

We also had tremendous help and support from the staff in Legislative Hall. Just as many of the legislators have become our friends over the years, so have the staff members. And when you have staff members on your side, you can accomplish just about anything!

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