During campaign season, people like to say there's a lot riding on an election. Whatever cause supporters can peg to the rise of candidates becomes the biggest thing happening. And the current Asheville City Council race is no exception. But there's one issue in this campaign season that seems to be rising from candidates and Council rather than from activists.
In a pre-primary Xpress poll of Council candidates (three of whom currently sit on Council) an overwhelming majority said they would support domestic-partnership benefits for Asheville City employees. (Council member Kelly Miller has since announced he was leaving the race.) For gay and lesbian couples working for the city (in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage), that could mean the same healthcare coverage and other benefits granted to married couples.
For current Council member Brownie Newman, who won't come up for reelection until 2011, the polling results are encouraging. Incumbents Robin Cape and Kelly Miller are both on the record for supporting the move, so he sees the issue as one vote from getting some serious traction. "It's my sense that we probably don't have a Council that would approve a policy right now," Newman told Xpress. "But from my standpoint, if we had four votes to do it, I would be supportive of trying to get it done."
The results of the October 6 primary saw the top four vote-getters in support of the move, and that's not to mention write-in candidate Robin Cape.
"We all know that Asheville is a gay-friendly city, and our city government ought to reflect our commitment to honoring the civil rights of all our citizens," wrote candidate Gordon Smith on Scrutiny Hooligans in July, shortly after the filing period had closed for Council elections. "To deny these benefits is to relegate gay and lesbian couples to second-class status."
It quickly became apparent that Smith was not alone. Candidate Cecil Bothwell told Xpress that the issue is about the separation of church and state, "because the choice to marry is ultimately a religious choice." In our candidate poll, Council member Miller said the issue is crucial to remain competitive with other communities to attract and keep good city employees.
But for Newman's dream scene to take place, the right people have to land on Council. Two candidates and Mayor Terry Bellamy have seats in contention in this election, and Miller's recent withdrawal from the race ensures a new Council member in his seat. Bellamy, whose reelection is likely, did not commit to a position. Even with Miller's replacement inevitable and the possibility of Cape being unseated, there is a good chance they will be replaced by people sympathetic with the cause of domestic partnerships, based on the primary results.
That leaves incumbent Council member and fifth-place primary finisher Carl Mumpower, who has not only said he won't support domestic-partnership benefits, but addresses the equality question in his own particular way by wondering if married spouses should even be eligible for employer-based benefits. His line: The city simply can't afford it. If Mumpower loses his seat to one of the top three primary winners, Newman would likely have the four votes he is looking for.
Mumpower's fiscal objection, however, is not a hard argument to make. Last fiscal year, Asheville had to close a $5 million budget gap in part by cutting back merit-pay increases for employees.
No staff report has been conducted on the economic impact of giving city employees domestic-partnership benefits. The city would also not say how many of its 1,092 full-time employees are currently legally married. Consequently, it is hard to figure the real cost to the city budget, especially since domestic-partnership benefits typically apply not only to same-sex couples, but also to unmarried straight couples.
But the availability of that information may soon change, as city staff plans to examine all benefits extended to city employees in preparation for a presentation to City Council in the next few months. Newman told Xpress that he may take that opportunity to broach the topic, especially if the votes are there.
The only evidence of a conversation at the local government level is from a March 2007 discussion to explore domestic-partnership benefits for workers in the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County. But a 3-2 vote by the MSD personnel committee killed further exploration. Newman was one of the two who voted unsuccessfully to keep the issue on the table.
An equal matter
Despite the city's reputation as a gay- and lesbian-friendly town, you can bet that the fiscal argument won't be the only one made against domestic partnerships in Asheville. "I'm sure there's going to be strong opposition to it," says John Fritchie, a gay activist and director of Resource for MANNA Food Bank. "There's a really strong conservative population here that is also part of our great diversity."
Those who were here in 1994 recall the passage of the city's nondiscrimination ordinance that guaranteed that sexual orientation wouldn't play a role in the hiring of city employees. The crowd that filled Thomas Wolfe Auditorium for the public hearing comprised not only gay activists and supporters but also many opponents, including quite a few religious leaders and their followers who wore white shirts, accoutrement that was said to represent morality. The measure passed 4-3, but the language remained vague, not specifically addressing sexual orientation. Rather, it made a person's ability to do a job the only factor to be considered in the hiring process.
"I know there's a lot of support out there," says Monroe Gilmore, coordinator for the WNC Citizens For an End to Institutional Bigotry. "But people are waiting for it to percolate up in Council."
Others note that maybe gays and lesbians in Asheville just aren't dissatisfied enough to make waves.
"I think there's a level of complacency in Asheville," says Porscha Yount, art director for the magazine Stereotypd. "I think we live in a bubble here. Then you step out of the city and you are reminded that you're not really safe anywhere."
And she says that lumping Asheville's gay population together on any issue is rarely a good bet.
"I don't know if it's at the forefront of issues in Asheville. I think even the gays and lesbians in Asheville are a little harder to peg down on that," she says. "Most of the people I know are not even pro gay marriage because the institution of marriage is flawed. I think it goes the same way with domestic-partnership benefits. That's the hard part of finding a grassroots gay movement in Asheville."
Pulling together some political unity and clout is one of the reasons behind the recent Blue Ridge Pride festival.
"What we don't have is any sense of unity to move on things that we do believe in," says organizer Amy Huntsman. "Whether that be something that's before City Council or something that is bigger and statewide. We don't have one organization to harness that energy. It's hard to say that Asheville can be at the forefront until we have something that's going to bring those people together."
The result of that non-organization was evident, she says, from the low turnout at the anti-Proposition 8 rally last year in downtown Asheville. "I don't know whether people don't really want to stir the pot here in Asheville or whether people here are really content," Huntsman says.
It's not that activism on this front is nonexistent. Some are changing the way marriage and equality are looked at, one ceremony at a time.
"We started talking to City Council about this six or seven years ago," says Rev. Joe Hoffman. "But they never brought it up or never thought it was the right time."
Hoffman, who presides over the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Asheville, performs both gay and straight wedding ceremonies, but stopped signing wedding licenses a year and a half ago to protest the lack of marriage rights for same-sex couples.
"I will perform the wedding ceremony, but I will not sign that piece of paper that makes it legal," he says. "It makes me act as an agent of the state, and it makes me participatory in what I believe to be a discriminatory process."
Same-sex marriage and domestic-partnership benefits are two different ways of addressing inequity issues, but he says he would like to see the city proceed.
"I think there would be a huge amount of support from my congregation for either one," he says.
Others agree, saying that fiscal, ideological or logistical issues are trumped by the question of equality.
"These are totally involved members of our community, so to deny their families this kind of medical benefits is a form of discrimination, and if it persists, it is a form of bigotry," Gilmore says. "Because you are blocking off a class of people based on your opinion about them and disregarding a sense of fairness and equality."
"We're certainly not trend setting here. The city of Atlanta approved domestic partnerships years ago," agrees Fritchie. "Asheville is such a diverse and welcoming community, I don't see it as contrary to the general mood of the city."