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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hawaii Democrats reprimand senator over civil-union e-mail

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Sen. Mike Gabbard

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State Democrats agreed yesterday to uphold a reprimand against state Sen. Mike Gabbard, finding the senator actively worked against a civil-unions bill last session and undermined the party's platform in favor of equality and civil rights.

O'ahu Democrats voted in July to reprimand Gabbard, a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage in the 1990s, for sending an e-mail to a party activist that said he would encourage his colleagues in the Senate to oppose civil unions.

Gabbard, who said he was representing the will of his constituents, appealed to the party's state central committee. The committee narrowly voted to uphold the reprimand after a private meeting at the Musicians' Association of Hawai'i union hall.

"It was a rigorous process. It was a very tough issue, and this was the result," said Brian Schatz, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawai'i, who voted against a reprimand.

Gabbard, D-19th (Kapolei, Makakilo, Waikele), said the fairest way to resolve such disagreements is at the ballot box.

"I think the fairest thing to do is to simply encourage people to get involved in the process, and let the democratic process play itself out," he said. "Whether it's civil unions or any other issue or any elected official for that matter ultimately any reprimand should happen at the ballot box every election cycle."

Democrats said it is rare to discipline an elected official for actions involving a public-policy issue that's before the state Legislature. In 1999, the party's state central committee approved a resolution critical of state senators who voted against the confirmations of state Attorney General Margery Bronster and budget director Earl Anzai.

A reprimand is the least severe punishment available to the party. The senator could have faced censure or expulsion.

Debi Hartmann, the chair of O'ahu Democrats, said Gabbard distinguished himself from other Democrats who opposed civil unions by the e-mail promising to actively organize against the bill.

The O'ahu Democrats' rules committee had recommended dismissing the complaint against Gabbard, but O'ahu Democrats rejected the recommendation and opted for a reprimand.

"He said in the e-mail that he would actively work to encourage his colleagues to do something," said Hartmann, who opposed same-sex marriage in the 1990s but backed civil unions at the Legislature last session. "That's very different than a member of the Legislature voting on an issue because his constituents feel a particular way."

Mun-Won Chang, a small-business owner who lives in 'Ewa Beach, said she was against the reprimand because it could make Gabbard a hero to opponents of civil unions. She said Democrats should instead focus on getting the bill passed next session.

"We are the party of inclusion, that's what President Obama ran on, so we need to include everyone," she said. "If that's what his view is, let it be his view. And if he's representing his constituents, who are we to say 'No, you can't vote that way'?"

Several party activists, still disappointed by Gabbard's visible role against same-sex marriage in the 1990s, were upset when Gabbard switched from the Hawai'i Republican Party in 2007 and was embraced by leading Democrats. Gabbard said at the time that he did not agree with the party on all issues and specifically cited civil unions and abortion rights.

Gabbard, chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, has mostly worked on issues such as renewable energy and environmental protection in the Senate. Other than speaking out against civil unions, the senator has not been publicly vocal about social issues.

The party's platform plank on civil rights and equal rights supports "equal access to fundamental rights including but not limited to marriage, privacy, and a woman's right to choose."

The civil-unions bill that passed the state House last session would give same-sex partners who enter into civil unions the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as married couples under state law. Domestic partnerships, civil unions and same-sex marriages performed in other states would be recognized as civil unions in Hawai'i.

The bill was amended in the Senate to allow both same-sex and heterosexual couples to enter into civil unions.

The bill stalled in the Senate but remains alive for the next session that starts in January.