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Electoral civil war

National | Five incumbents knocked off as Vermonters battle over the state's civil union law

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

in Orange County, Vermont-Fall made a leisurely debut in Vermont last month, splashing the state's rolling hills with sporadic glimmers of gold and red. Signs of a coming political change were visible as well: Hundreds of black-and-white signs proclaiming "Take Back Vermont" and "Remember in November" dotted the lush green landscape. That's the latest reaction to a "civil union" bill that made Vermont the first state to sanction homosexual partnerships. Passed by the state legislature in April, the bill grants same-sex unions the same legal benefits and protection as heterosexual marriage. The legislation was proposed in response to the Vermont Supreme Court's ruling that the state denied constitutional rights to marital benefits to gay and lesbian couples. Over 600 homosexual couples-including 474 from other states-have already taken advantage of the law, which took effect in July. "The bell of equality has been rung in Vermont and people across the country have heard it," proclaimed the Lambda Legal Defense Fund's chief counsel, Evan Wolfson. "You can't un-ring the bell." Richard Lambert, a Vermont dairy farmer, disagrees. And to make his point, he has distributed some 5,000 "Take Back Vermont" signs. Affixed to telephone poles, front porches, and barn sides, the signs have spread across the countryside and sparked a statewide movement. "We gave the people a voice," Mr. Lambert said proudly, pointing out his plastic-covered haystacks painted with the names of candidates who oppose civil unions. This season marks a series of firsts for Mr. Lambert-his first computer, his first political involvement, and his first painted haystacks. He joins an increasing number of once apolitical rural residents who believe their traditional lifestyle is threatened by a heavy-handed government. And they registered that discontent at the state primary Sept. 12, drawing the largest voter turnout in state history and ousting five Republican Senate and House incumbents who voted for civil unions. (The Vermont Senate has 30 members and the Vermont House has 150 members.)That's just a preview of the upset to come this November, say civil union opponents. "We've just started," proclaimed sheep farmer Tom Wilson, speaking at one of six "Take Back Vermont" meetings held on the eve of primary elections. Dressed in navy-blue suspenders, faded jeans, and shiny black shoes, he delivered a revival-style pep talk to some 25 residents from Orange County. Rural residents in this central Vermont county say they are frustrated by legislators who ignored them. They cite polls taken before the civil union bill's passage showing that 73 percent of Orange County residents were against it. The poll was one of several taken across the state with similar results. "What happened, folks? Did your legislature listen to you?" Mr. Wilson asked his audience. "Did it listen to what the majority of Vermonters had to say? No, it did not. It did not care." As late arrivals trickled into the kitchen (including two bearded men in baseball caps and a carpenter wearing camouflage), Mr. Wilson whipped out a Vermont map shaded with green areas signifying "Take Back Vermont" cell groups. To date there are 75 such groups, each averaging 50 to 100 members. "We've got thousands of people in this network now and in a couple of months we'll have more," Mr. Wilson promised the audience. "You've got some power here.... You've got some ability to slow this thing down." As evidenced by the rotary-style telephones and wood-framed television sets found in many farmhouses, slowing things down is important to "flatlanders"-as rural residents here are commonly called. "Their way of life is perishing, and they are working harder for less and less," Mr. Wilson told WORLD after the meeting. "I don't like to see people that are sort of left behind in this culture run over.... Maybe some of them write letters instead of e-mails, but there is a lot more reality in their letter." Through this grassroots network, he hopes to offer them a voice. And Orange County residents will have a chance to speak this November when their senator-civil union supporter Mark McDonald-defends his seat. His opponent could provide one of five votes needed in the Senate to repeal the law. Currently, 6-7 votes are needed in the House. Take Back Vermonters are hoping some former "yes" votes might also waver, especially if Gov. Howard Dean is ousted in November. To make sure that doesn't happen, a group called Vermonters for Civil Unions has launched a fundraising campaign to ensure Gov. Dean's reelection and solidify other civil union supporters. But they aren't taking anything for granted. "I don't feel safe at all," Vermonters for Civil Unions director Beth Robinson told the Washington Blade, a Washington, D.C., gay-rights newspaper. "This law passed by the thinnest of margins," she said. As the battle for votes mounts, those forced to carry out the law are waging another skirmish. Corinth town clerk Susan Fortunati, for instance, has refused to issue civil union licenses and is encouraging other town clerks to do the same. "If I issue the license ... I've compromised my beliefs," she told WORLD. When told she must either appoint someone else to do the job or resign, Mrs. Fortunati responded in typical flatlander fashion: She appointed Gov. Dean as her assistant. The response? "Gov. Dean had his attorney write me a letter telling me it was inconsistent with his other duties," she said. Mrs. Fortunati countered that she also finds the job "inconsistent": "The way they have regulated this, no matter what I do I've compromised something." Many of the state's justices of the peace find themselves in the same position. Rather than sanction homosexual unions, justice of the peace Anne Valliere stopped performing domestic ceremonies altogether. "Marriage is second place now," she lamented, explaining that "civil unions" is now the first option listed on state licenses. Back at the Orange County farmhouse, Mr. Wilson elicited a few "amens" from the crowd by warning that civil union ultimately sanctions homosexuality as a state-protected lifestyle. "Under that philosophy we have no basis for resisting the teaching and promoting it in our schools," he said. "That's the baggage that comes along with this." Then came the final altar call. Pointing his finger at each audience member, he cautioned that "it will be a long and arduous battle. You need to ask in your own heart, are you willing to engage that or do you want to run away?" Those up to the challenge received their first assignment the following morning: They distributed voter guides at polling sites across the state. Standing in drizzling rain, Mr. Lambert took his post in front of a historic church converted into a town meeting hall and temporary polling place. As voters headed toward church doors propped open with a cement-mix bag, he waved them down with voter guides. One woman stuck her hand in front of Mr. Lambert's face and continued walking but others-wearing "Take Back Vermont" hats-grabbed the guides and posed for pictures in front of the church. This primary marked a ceremonious occasion for many first-time voters. "I've never voted in my life before," said a plain-dressed woman whose husband is a stonecutter at the town quarry. Asked why she chose this drizzly day to make her debut, she responded, "I want my son to be brought up with the same morals as us children were." The primary also marked a first for 77-year-old Marjorie Bresette, a life-long Democrat and native Vermonter who voted Republican this time. "To me the biggest thing in this election was the legislature," she said. "They were elected by the people to talk for the people. And they just didn't do it." Their responses mirrored the double-sided sentiment that seems to be fueling this movement. On one side are moral concerns that civil unions legalize immoral behavior. For others it's simply an issue of control. "Basically the Vermonter up here feels like he's been conquered and now he wants to regain control of his traditional life and land," said Mrs. Valliere's husband Leo, who posted a "Take Back Vermont" sign on his family's 62- year-old woodshop. About a stone's throw away from his woodshop, a rainbow flag adorns the front porch of a Victorian-style bed and breakfast. It's obvious Vermont has entered a civil war, with both sides hoping to claim victory this November. Until then, Mr. Lambert will continue distributing his "Take Back Vermont" paraphernalia-he's now progressed to T-shirts, hats, and bumper stickers-and Mr. Wilson continues his neighborhood pep talks. "This isn't going to end in November," the sheep farmer told Orange County residents. "The U.S. is going to be dealing with this for years and years to come."

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