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Romney's stance on civil unions draws fire
Governor Mitt Romney received a standing ovation at the Spartanburg County Republican Party dinner in South Carolina Monday after delivering a speech opposing same-sex marriage. (Globe Photo / Coke Whitworth)

Romney's stance on civil unions draws fire

Activists accuse governor of 'flip-flopping' on issue

A national gay and lesbian Republican organization yesterday accused Governor Mitt Romney of "flip-flopping" on civil unions for same-sex couples, and other gay activists and Democrats complained that Romney was reinventing himself as a conservative to run for president.

In his speech Monday night, part of what many GOP activists see as the early signs of a presidential campaign, the governor said, "From day one I've opposed the move for same-sex marriage and its equivalent, civil unions." He briefly reviewed the Supreme Judicial Court decision that said gay couples could marry and said, "Some are actually having children born to them."

Yesterday the Log Cabin Republicans sharply rebuked the Massachusetts governor, saying his remarks indicate he is backsliding on his 2002 campaign commitment to support some benefits for gay couples. He had also urged GOP lawmakers to vote for a proposed constitutional amendment last spring that would ban same-sex marriage but allow gay couples to enter into civil unions.

"We don't need another flip-flopping politician," said Ken Sanchez, president of the Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans, who was speaking for the national organization.

After the Log Cabin group, the state Democratic Party chairman, and another gay rights group criticized him, Romney insisted that he had not changed positions. Clearly angry, he said that same-sex marriage advocates were rewriting his positions on civil unions, same-sex marriage, and his support of the proposed constitutional amendment.

"I am only supporting civil unions if gay marriage is the alternative," Romney said in an interview in his office. "I've made it clear as humanly possible."

A review of Romney's remarks shows that at an October 2002 campaign debate, he said: "Call me old fashioned, but I don't support gay marriage nor do I support civil union." Then, after the SJC decision legalizing same-sex marriage, he told WCVB on Dec. 17, 2003, that if he had to choose, he would favor civil unions over full-fledged gay marriage. However, he added: "But that is not my preference overall. My preference overall would be neither civil union or marriage."

Last March, Romney's staff told House Republicans he supported the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage but allow civil unions. At the time, the Globe reported that Romney's chief of staff told the lawmakers that the governor needed the Legislature to pass some amendment so he could justify his planned request to the Supreme Judicial Court to stay its ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

The amendment won initial approval last March by four votes in the 200-member Legislature and must pass the Legislature once more to be placed before the voters in 2006.

Yesterday, pointing to news clips on his office table, the governor said he had to make a Hobson's choice after the November 2003 decision to legalize same-sex marriage. "Faced with a choice of civil unions or gay marriage, I'll take civil unions anytime," Romney said. "But that doesn't make me a supporter of civil unions. . . . My statement in South Carolina is absolutely accurate."

"I'm not pulling a John Kerry, playing both sides of the issue," Romney said, in a swipe at the Massachusetts senator who was accused by President Bush's campaign of flip-flopping on controversial issues.

Yesterday, Romney said he would probably vote for the amendment if it is on the ballot and if it is the only choice. But he said he was hesitant to give the amendment his unqualified support because opponents of same-sex marriage are exploring other legal options. He described them as referendums and new amendments, but he did not elaborate what they are precisely or if they are legally viable.

Recalling his 2002 campaign, he also said he made clear to the Log Cabin Republicans that he opposed civil unions, but would support laws against hate crimes and discrimination against gays and to provide some partner benefits.

His comments in South Carolina on same-sex marriage were the second time in two weeks the governor has made statements that many interpret as an attempt to appeal to socially conservative voters who dominate the Republican presidential primaries. Earlier this month, Romney gained national attention when he said he wants to ban production of embryos for the purposes of stem-cell research in Massachusetts.

Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, said the South Carolina speech, made on the heels of Romney's stand on stem-cell research, is a clear indication that Romney is not running for reelection in 2006. Instead, he appears to be trying to shed his moderate Republican image, which could help him among middle-of-the-road voters in Massachusetts, to instead stake out a conservative niche in the 2008 GOP presidential sweepstakes.

"It was a good opening to get conservatives to take him seriously," Berry said of Romney's foray into the South this week. "It was a big success in terms of South Carolina and more broadly in other Republican conservative circles. He has thrown down the marker to other Republicans that he is going to be in the race, with the organization, know-how, and money."

Romney, who has insisted he is running for a second term, scoffed at the speculation yesterday, saying he is not looking to make national news, particularly with the stem-cell research issue. He contended that the controversy erupted when the Democrat-dominated Senate began pushing the issue.

"It's so speculative and so remote that it is not worth talking about," he said of the 2008 campaign.

In his remarks to the South Carolina audience, Romney also revealed that he opposes attempts by some Massachusetts city and town clerks to revamp birth certificates to accommodate same-sex parents. He said he has been urged to remove mother and father on the certificate and replace the language with gender-neutral phrases, "parent a" and "parent b."

The head of the Massachusetts Town Clerks Association said yesterday she has urged Romney to change the birth certificate form. Some clerks currently cross out mother or father in the case of same-sex parents.

"These couples deserve to have a document that is correct," said Linda Hutchenrider, who as Barnstable town clerk records most of the births at Cape Cod Hospital. "The child has every right in the world to have a birth certificate with his [or her] parents on it and with no crossouts on it. . . . I understand what the governor is saying, but I disagree with him."

Romney's statement to the South Carolina crowd that he strongly opposes the changes may not have drifted down into the bureaucracy, however. A spokeswoman for the State Department of Public Health said the agency is still studying whether to change birth certificates to accommodate same sex parents. Spokeswoman Nicole St. Peter said that in the past year, the state has recorded 80 births to same sex couples.

Romney angered some in Massachusetts after he appeared in his speech Monday to mock his state's liberal social and political culture and to portray himself as battling gay marriage and civil unions. "Attacking law-abiding, taxpaying, gay and lesbian families from your own state, while visiting another state, does nothing to strengthen families and, in fact, weakens families," Sanchez said.

Local gay activists who are battling Romney over the governor's push to ban same-sex marriages also reacted harshly to his comments. Marty Rouse, the campaign coordinator for Mass Equality, which supports gay marriages, said he was offended by Romney's jokes to the socially conservative crowd. He pointed to the governor's comment that as a conservative Republican in Massachusetts, he felt like a "cattle rancher at a vegetarian conventions."

"Shame on him for making our families, which are part of the Massachusetts family fabric, the laugh line in his undeniable quest for the White House," Rouse said.

Romney also came under attack from the Massachusetts Democratic Party, whose chairman, Philip Johnston, accused the governor of trying to reinvent himself as a conservative Republican as he eyes a national campaign. Johnston said Romney's remarks opposing civil unions and other comments he made in South Carolina are a strong signal that he does not plan to face the Massachusetts electorate again.

"Some should remind Governor Romney he would never dare make such vile comments if he intended to remain Massachusetts," Johnston said.

Globe correspondent Janette Neuwahl contributed to this report.

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