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Gay Marriage, Justice and Senator Herb Kohl

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Message Michael Leon
Madison, Wisconsin-Amid the most negative and expensive campaign season in Wisconsin history, a victory for equality eluded the state Tuesday.

Despite eloquent last-minute efforts by popular Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and actor Bradley Whitford, the proposal to ban gay marriage and civil unions as an amendment to the Wisconsin constitution was decisively affirmed at the ballot box, 59 percent to 41 percent, enshrining biogtry in Wisconsin's constitution.

Fair Wisconsin, the aggressive and diverse coalition that rode point against the amendment, outworked and massively outspent supporters of the amendment, that was never anything more than the product of state Republicans following the Karl Rove playbook on getting-out-the-bigot vote, a vital Republican constituency.

To the surprise of many Wisconsinites, the idea, the vague concept of two individuals of the same sex loving each other was sufficiently repulsive to enough voters here to ensure the amendment's victory: only one of 72 counties, Dane (of which Madison is the county seat) voted against. (Nationally, only in Arizona, of 27 referenda udring the Bush years, has a similarly worded state constitutional amendment met defeat, demonstrating some measure of political success in the Rovian tactic of defaming gays and lesbians.)

The vote seems a crushing defeat for the civil rights community, and the 1,000s of young volunteers who worked their butts off for simple justice and civil rights, only to see the Republicans score a rare victory in this election cycle.

"Why do they hate me?" asked Crystal Hyslop of Madison, a Fair Wisconsin Volunteer, on election night (Doug Erickson, Wisconsin State Journal, November 8, 2006).

Under-30s for Equality

On Fair Wisconsin's blog a writer attempted to console the civil rights workers:

"This fight against the amendment was never just about what happened today. All of us are committed to a long-term struggle for equality and fairness for everyone. We cannot give up on Wisconsin, and there's good reason not to. We know for certain that many of the same people who voted for this amendment today are the very same people who will support equality for gay families within the next five or 10 years."

Indeed, exit polling shows a two-to-one margin against the amendment among the under-30 demographic, indicating an inevitable victory somewhere in the future.

Senator Herb Kohl

So what went wrong here? I've been personally asked the question quite a bit, having predicted the amendment's defeat this spring.

I propose to you that injustice triumphed because too many good people did nothing.

And I single out Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin), a nice and generous man, who as a popular multi-millionaire incumbent Senator facing only token political opposition in his reelection campaign was uniquely placed to speak out against the anti-gay amendment, frame the issue, and blast away in TV spots.

"All he had to do was make one commercial that said, 'Hi, I'm Herb Kohl, and I'm urging the defeat of this hateful, destructive amendment intruding into our lives and denying equal rights to our fellow citizens,'" said one young Fair Wisconsin volunteer. "Run the ad over and over, and that would have set the environment and that would have done it."

But Kohl, unlike Senator Feingold, did absolutely nothing.

Among some Madison political insiders, Kohl is derided as the "Dairy Queen," for his alleged, closeted past gay love life in the dairy state, his weird vote for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and his do-nothing commitments on the amendment this year.

Senator Kohl, you are a nice guy, but as a Senator, well, you tend to sit on the sidelines.

We applaud your well-known efforts to further education, but as a Senator, you were presented with a perfect opportunity to educate Wisconsin citizens about civil rights on this issue, and you blew it.

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Michael Leon is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His writing has appeared nationally in The Progressive, In These Times, and CounterPunch. He can be reached at
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