Bob Bernick Jr.: Huntsman's timing on Common Ground curious

Published: Friday, Feb. 13 2009 1:07 a.m. MST

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. pleased and angered a number of Utahns this week when he announced his support for the Common Ground initiative on gay rights.

It's not just gays and lesbians who would benefit from the Common Ground bills, a combination of four or five bills that would give various nontraditional families greater access to the courts, civil actions and so on.

But while an elderly brother and sister living together may be able to take advantage of some of the Common Ground initiatives, clearly these are bills that would help homosexual couples.

And therein lies the rub.

Anything "gay" in the Legislature is immediately opposed by the Utah Eagle Forum, the Sutherland Institute and any number of conservative legislators.

If you listen to Huntsman explain his reasoning behind supporting the Common Ground initiatives, as I have, he makes sense.

He explains that he's always stood for nondiscrimination and for letting all human beings have the same opportunities as some human beings.

He strongly defends his belief that marriage should be only between a man and a woman, and all religions have the right to act on their own beliefs.

Civil unions don't infringe on the right or sacredness of marriage, he says.

But this is such a polarizing issue that even though Huntsman says he wants to be a moderating voice and heal open wounds in the Utah citizenry — his statements seem to have done just the opposite. At least for now.

Conservatives in the Utah House and Senate have lit their torches and are marching on the governor's office.

All kinds of things could be coming — from letters signed by fellow Republicans condemning Huntsman's stands, to resolutions brought before the Utah Republican Party's Central Committee meeting saying the party leaders disagree with him, to threats against his person.

Huntsman canceled all public appearances Wednesday and didn't even come to the Capitol, staying in his South Temple official residence. Aides declined to say why his schedule was changed.

I understand why Huntsman chose to speak out.

I don't understand the timing.

Why anger conservatives in the Legislature when he's facing several weeks of tough budget-cutting, perhaps tax-raising, negotiations with those Republican majorities?

Why take this issue up at all in the middle of a short, 45-day general session?

He could have supported the Common Ground initiative when it was first announced two months ago.

Or, considering that the bills were basically doomed from the start — remember anything "gay" in the Legislature? — he could have waited until the session was over before regretting the bills' demise.

Political pundits say Huntsman, after winning his last run for the governorship by a record-setting majority last November, is repositioning himself for the national stage.

With Republicans basically relegated to Utah, Idaho and the Southern states in the 2008 elections, the GOP has to break out of that regional base and expand.

And that means bringing various minorities, racial as well as social, into the mix.

You are not going to win many national elections over the next 50 years getting just the white, straight male vote, the pundits say, especially with the changing demographics of the United States.

So Huntsman may want to join the "big-tenter" Republicans outside of Utah.

Unfortunately for him, many Utahns, like his former chief of staff, now U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, see tents for another purpose — to house illegal aliens.

We'll see over the next few weeks if Huntsman's statements on the Common Ground initiatives have an effect on state budgets or various bills, like those aimed at roping in executive powers or enhancing legislative ethics (where the governor has already been told to butt out).

Huntsman's statements this week may well help him with many moderate Utahns and Americans looking for changes, ala Barack Obama.

But they will hurt him within the Utah Republican Party and in the Legislature.

Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached by e-mail at bbjr@desnews.com

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS