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Is Portman signaling shift in Republican Party?

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published March 24. 2013 4:00AM

Besides the selection of a new pope, the big news a week ago Friday, March 15, was the shocking announcement by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a co-sponsor of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, that he now supports same-sex marriage. The change of heart came about largely because he had come to know someone well who is gay - his son, Will.

"I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for reach other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn't deny them the opportunity to get married," wrote Portman in a commentary published by the Columbus Dispatch.

By way of coincidence my guest that day was Connecticut Comptroller Kevin J. Lembo. The purpose of the meeting was to question Lembo about fiscal policy and his new initiatives aimed at making state financial information more transparent and accessible to the public, efforts The Day has since applauded editorially.

But Lembo also happens to be the first openly gay person to win a statewide office in Connecticut - his election as comptroller in November 2010. He gained some national attention last summer when he questioned the appropriateness of the Democrats holding their national convention in Charlotte, N.C. after voters in that state approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Lembo is in a same-sex marriage. He and his partner, Charles Frey, have three boys.

So I had to ask him, concerning the Portman announcement, what did he think?

"I think good for him and good for the issue of marriage equality and good for his family, most importantly, and that his father sort of gets who he is and supports him. That's all wonderful," Lembo told me.

"But," he said, pausing for a second. "Pulling back from that just a little bit ..." Another pause. "It always frustrates me and, in some cases, infuriates me, that it takes a hit at home on some of these issues before someone can have that moment of recognition."

Portman said his evolution on the issue - his "hit at home" - began in 2011 when his son, then a freshman at Yale University, told his parents he was gay.

"My son told us that it was not a choice, and that it's just part of who he is and that's who he'd been for as long as he could remember," Portman said in a CNN interview.

And that, said Portman, led him to view the issue "from a new perspective, and that's of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have - to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years."

Yet, from Lembo's perspective, that makes Portman a politician who "struggles with putting himself in the shoes of others," someone "tone deaf to what's going on in people's lives" unless he is impacted personally.

It was quite a reversal. Portman did not simply oppose gay marriage; he helped write DOMA, the law that prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriages even in states that have legalized such marriages. The constitutionality of DOMA is now the subject a U.S. Supreme Court challenge

I see Portman's story as illustrative of the way prejudicial barriers fall. They snowball. Enlightment leads to changes in law and policy - prohibiting discrimination, mainstreaming special needs and disabled children into school systems, promoting a culture of tolerance - that bring people together, breakdown stereotypes and afford the opportunity for personal relationships. Through those relationships people learn they are far more alike than different. Rationalizations for having different sets of rules for different groups erode.

Before the interview moved back to talk of budgets and deficits, Lembo made one last political observation, one that Republicans might benefit from.

"Does this sort of signal evolution within the party? When someone at that level makes that kind of pivot, it's going to mean something to somebody," Lembo said.

"When and if the Republicans are able to field a candidate who stays out of those social issues, those personal issues, and focuses more on the economy and the budget, and leaves the rest of it alone, they are probably going get some lift pretty quickly. Because I think that is where the vast majority of people are."

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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