Gay Rights Activists Keep Close Watch on Ore. Lawmaker

Gay rights activists are going to be looking for payback when Oregon House Speaker Karen Minnis (search) comes up for re-election next year.

Over the summer, the Republican enraged gay rights supporters when she refused to let the House vote on a civil unions (search) bill that had been passed by the state Senate with the blessing of the Democratic governor.

Now state and national gay rights groups are targeting Minnis for defeat in 2006 as part of an effort to elect more gay-friendly legislators. The effort could turn this tourism-oriented town east of Portland into a battleground.

A spokesman for a national gay rights group in Washington, D.C., said Oregon is one of several states where bills to provide more rights to gays have faltered and where activists will be working to defeat lawmakers who stood in the way.

"There are a handful of states where a change in a couple of seats could make a big difference," David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign said recently. "And you could choose no finer example of that than House Speaker Karen Minnis."

The civil unions controversy is the latest chapter in Oregon's gay marriage debate that began in 2004, when Multnomah County issued marriage licenses to 3,000 same-sex couples before a judge ordered the county to stop. Last fall Oregon voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage. It was one of 11 states to pass similar ballot measures.

Minnis knows she is in for a tough re-election fight in her Multnomah County district because of her stand against the civil unions bill, which would have allowed same-sex couples to gain most of the benefits of marriage.

"They're coming after me," she said in an interview in Troutdale. "I think they are going to attack me personally at every given turn."

Democrats hold an 8 percentage-point voter registration edge in Minnis' district. And Democrat Rob Brading, who lost to Minnis by 6 points in 2004, plans to run against her again next year. But Minnis has a big name advantage — she is in her fourth term and succeeded her husband, who served six House terms.

Troutdale Mayor Paul Thalhofer (search), a registered Democrat who supported Minnis' opponent in 2004, said he plans to back the Republican speaker next year, even though he favors civil unions. Thalhofer said Minnis has done a good job of representing the district's interests in the Legislature on most other issues.

"She is quite popular in the district," the mayor said. "It will be difficult for those groups to turn enough voters against her to make a difference."

A similar view comes from Terry Smoke, who owns the Troutdale General Store, a combination restaurant and gift shop in the city's historic district.

"Karen is very keyed in to what's going on in the community," Smoke said. "That will pull her through."

In refusing to let the civil unions bill come up for a House vote, Minnis argued that it would violate the spirit of the ban on gay marriage passed by Oregon voters last November.

The state's leading gay rights group, Basic Rights Oregon, argues that public opinion polls indicate growing support among Oregonians for civil unions and that Minnis thwarted the democratic process by not allowing the House to vote on the bill.

Basic Rights spokeswoman Rebekah Kassell said her group will become involved in various legislative races next year. She noted that in neighboring Washington state, a bill banning discrimination against gays in housing, employment and insurance failed by just one vote in the state Senate earlier this year.

In other gay-rights setbacks in state capitals this year: A House-approved measure prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation was left in limbo when the Delaware Legislature adjourned. And bills to ban discrimination against gays in Colorado and to legalize same-sex marriage in California were vetoed by the governors of those states.