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A history of Scott Walker's stance on same-sex marriage

A history of Scott Walker's stance on same-sex marriage


Addressing evangelical voters in Iowa last weekend, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's made his position on same-sex marriage clear.

And that's how it's been for Walker, as long as he's been engaged in politics. Except for that time when it wasn't.

Just before he took the stage at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition summit on Saturday, the Republican governor and likely presidential candidate spoke with reporters about a number of topics, including the case before the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether states may ban same-sex marriages

"One, let me be clear: I believe that marriage is between one man and one woman. I voted on that as a state lawmaker, I voted on that as a citizen of Wisconsin (on the 2006 constitutional amendment)," Walker said. "As governor, I fought to uphold the Constitution in the state of Wisconsin, that includes that. At the federal level in the courts, the court of appeals, I and our attorney general at the time asked the U.S. Supreme Court to act on it. They did not."

"The next step now is to see … what would happen with other states going forward," Walker continued. "My belief — I still hold out hope that the Supreme Court will rule, as has been the tradition in the past, the states are the place that get to define what marriage is. If for some reason they don’t — I’m still holding out hope that they do — I believe it’s reasonable for the people of America to consider a constitutional amendment that would affirm the ability of states to do just that."

Along with eight other Republican presidential hopefuls, Walker shared the stage on Saturday with a handful of Iowa activists and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. 

King introduced legislation last week that would prevent federal courts from hearing same-sex marriage cases. 

Asked whether he would support that bill, or if he supports the concept, Walker said this: "One, again I hope the Supreme Court upholds that, which would make that a moot issue. But as an alternative … I think the appropriate route is for people across America who care deeply about this issue to pursue a constitutional amendment allowing the states to determine what the definition is."

Asked for clarification on whether Walker was referring to a constitutional amendment at the federal level or advocating for each individual state to take up the effort, Our American Revival spokeswoman AshLee Strong said he was referring to "a constitutional amendment that would allow each state to decide on their own."

Walker's comments this weekend and in recent weeks demonstrate a marked shift in tone from his answers during his re-election campaign last year, and a return to the attitude he displayed earlier in his political career.

A history of opposition

Walker's view of marriage as "one man, one woman" can be traced back to as early as 1997, when he voted as a member of the state Assembly for a bill to prohibit same-sex marriages and to declare those conducted in other states invalid. 

During a short-lived campaign for governor in 2005, Walker's opposition to same-sex marriage was resolute.

"Many years ago, I concluded that we must change the Wisconsin State Constitution to say that marriage is to be between one man and one woman. My belief in this position is even stronger today," Walker said in a November 2005 statement arguing for the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment, sending the question to the voters. 

Walker noted in 2005 that state law defined marriage as between a husband and wife. The constitutional amendment, he said, would ensure that only marriages between one man and one woman would be recognized in Wisconsin.

"State law in Wisconsin also prohibits marriage if either person has a living husband or wife or if the people attempting to get married are related or if either party is under a particular age," Walker said at the time. "In other words, state law already regulates who can and who cannot get married in Wisconsin."

The Legislature did pass the amendment and Walker joined with 59 percent of voters to amend the state Constitution, banning same-sex marriage. 

Once the ban was in place, as Milwaukee County Executive in 2009, Walker opposed efforts to provide health care benefits to same-sex partners of county employees. 

Running for governor against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in 2010, Walker opposed the domestic partnership registry that allowed same-sex couples to register with counties to receive certain benefits, like hospital visitation rights.

But as he geared up to campaign for a second term, Walker became less outspoken on the issue. 

'Republicans haven't been talking about this'

In a March 2013 interview on Meet the Press, Walker was asked whether young conservatives are likely to see marriage equality as something that is "basic" rather than as a "disqualifying issue."

"I think there’s no doubt about that," Walker told host David Gregory. "But I think that’s all the more reason, when I talk about things, I talk about the economic and fiscal crises in our state and in our country — that’s what people want to resonate about. They don’t want to get focused on those issues."

In the same interview, Walker said "the interesting thing on the generational standpoint" was that young people were questioning why the government sanctions marriages in the first place. An alternative, he said, would be to leave it to "churches and synagogues and others" to define the institution.

As the 2014 midterm elections loomed closer, Walker's public face on same-sex marriage became increasingly difficult to read

On June 6, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb struck down Wisconsin's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage — a decision that then-Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen appealed. Ultimately, in October 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected appeals from Wisconsin and four other states, allowing same-sex marriages to resume.

Asked about his position several times last summer, Walker insisted it was irrelevant. 

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Dan Bice asked Walker in June if he was rethinking his position on the issue.

"No," Walker replied. "I'm just not stating one at all."

The next month, he said of gay marriage: "I don't think the Republican Party is fighting it." 

"I'm not saying it's not important," Walker told the Associated Press at the National Governors Association in Nashville. "But Republicans haven't been talking about this. We've been talking about economic and fiscal issues. It's those on the left that are pushing it."

The governor even took a ribbing from Stephen Colbert, who called him out for his silence on the issue during a segment noting that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. 

"I believe we must all respect Walker’s privacy in this difficult time to be against gay marriage," Colbert said. "It is a personal matter between him and his pollster. It is none of the public’s business what Walker decides in the privacy of his own governor’s mansion."

Walker's response to the Supreme Court order in October was to stop fighting and move on.

Unlike U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who vowed to keep fighting same-sex marriage, Walker said of the order, "For us, it’s over in Wisconsin."

"I'd rather be talking in the future now more about our jobs plan and our plan for the future of the state," Walker said a few weeks before the November 2014 election. "I think that’s what matters to the kids. It’s not this issue."

A Marquette University Law School poll released around that time showed that 64 percent of Wisconsin voters supported gay marriage.

When Walker did appeal the federal court's decision to strike down the ban, he argued that he was legally obligated to support the state's constitutional amendment.

"It wasn't my law," Walker told reporters after the Supreme Court order was issued. "It wasn't something the governor had to do with, no. The bottom line is … I voted for the amendment in 2006 like the majority of the voters in the state of Wisconsin did … Any governor, Democrat or Republican, is obligated when they take the oath of office to support the Constitution of the state of Wisconsin and to support the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution in the state of Wisconsin was clear, and until a federal court ultimately said it wasn't, any governor — not just myself — would be obligated to support that."

Change in tone, but not message

Calling for a constitutional amendment to allow states to ban gay marriage is a long way from "For us, it's over," Walker critics noted after his most recent Iowa appearance. 

But Matt Batzel, the Wisconsin-based national executive director for the conservative group American Majority, said Walker's position on marriage has always been consistent. 

A look through statements and interviews from over the years is likely to turn up different ways of talking about the issue, Batzel said, but "it's all the same message."

Batzel suggested that Walker downplayed the issue of marriage during his race against Democrat Mary Burke to avoid straying from conversations about the economy and the reforms implemented through his Act 10 legislation, which eliminated collective bargaining rights for most public employees.

"One of his strengths, certainly, is to have a strong message and stay on it," Batzel said. "I think with his gubernatorial and recall races in Wisconsin, where he's been trying to win general elections, he has found the message. He wants to talk about economic turnarounds. He wants to stay on message, and not be driven off message and fall into a trap Mary Burke or Tom Barrett may set for him talking about other issues."

Batzel noted that Walker is skilled at finding the right frequency to reach voters and win elections in Wisconsin. It remains to be seen, he said, whether he can do the same at the national level.

But he added that he doesn't think there's been doubt among grassroots and conservative activists about where Walker stands on marriage. 

"There may be folks that want stronger statements, at times," Batzel said. "If this is their main issue, then they may prefer stronger statements. I think now he's reaching out to different audiences, considering getting into the presidential race. He's trying to discern what his message should be and what it will be."

Megin McDonell, interim executive director of Fair Wisconsin, agreed that Walker's position has been largely consistent in the past. In his support for the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, she noted, he often cited the "will of the voters."

"The 2014 governor's race, and many state legislative races as well, seemed to show that LGBT equality was not the key issue that candidates wanted to use to differentiate themselves from each other to the voters," McDonell said. "Everyone wanted to talk about jobs and the economy. Now that he is introducing himself to voters outside of Wisconsin, I think we're seeing the dynamic of a Republican primary — he wants to let people know his personal beliefs on social issues."

But Democrats say marriage is just another area where Walker molds his message based on the office he's seeking.

"The only thing anyone can trust about Scott Walker's word is that it will change to suit his needs," said Democratic Party of Wisconsin communications director Melissa Baldauff.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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