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Marriage Rights Issue May Shift Coachella Congressional Race

Mary Bono-Mack and Raul Ruiz | photos courtesy the Bono-Mack and Ruiz campaigns

The eyes of the world were on the White House a week ago as President Obama announced his support for the idea of marriage equality, but it didn't take very long for the consequences of that statement to make their mark on the upcoming race to represent the Coachella Valley's 36th Congressional District.

In an email sent to supporters on Saturday, Democrat Raúl Ruiz, who is challenging incumbent Mary Bono Mack for the seat she's held since 1998, Ruiz pulled no punches in stating his views on the issue of marriage rights for LGBT couples:

I respect that people have deeply held beliefs about gay marriage and that we'll not all agree. But in the greatest country in the world we should not sanction discrimination, and that is why I support the right of all people to marry. I support marriage equality because I am opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether based on gender, race, age, or who you love. The right to marriage should be available to everyone who wants to be in a committed loving relationship.

When local media tried to get a statement on the issue from Ruiz's opponent, they went away empty-handed. As Representative Bono-Mack's spokesperson Ken Johnson emailed the Palm Springs Desert Sun,

"Since this is not a federal issue, Congresswoman Bono Mack prefers to keep her personal beliefs private. This is America. The president has a right to express his opinion, if he chooses. But that doesn't mean other people have to shout out their feelings from a street corner."

This reticence on the representative's part is nothing new. A freelance videographer who ran into Bono-Mack in April at the GLAAD Awards got only a little further. Asked about her position on marriage rights, Bono-Mack let fly with a cloud of rhetorical squid ink and made her escape:

Bono-Mack is clearly walking a political tightrope, and she's not looking particularly secure as she does so. On the one hand, the Congresswoman is not a particularly enthusiastic culture warrior. Her stepson Chaz Bono is a prominent transgender activist, and their relationship gives every indication of being a close one. Bono-Mack enjoys warm support among the Log Cabin Republican set in Palm Springs. She was recently one of seven House Republicans to oppose a bill reaffirming the Defense of Marriage Act, the act itself a reaffirmation of her previous opposition to the law. She was one of 15 GOP Representatives to vote to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Though her record on LGBT matters isn't blemish-free -- In 1999, for instance, she supported an attempt to prevent same-sex couples in Washington DC from adopting -- left to her own devices she would likely be as LGBT-friendly as a Republican gets.

But that pesky activist right wing in the GOP demands obeisance from party members, and Bono-Mack is no exception. Her reluctance to sign onto anti-LGBT initiatives, among other things, has eroded her support among the rightmost portions of her party. Her rating by the Christian Coalition, for instance, fell by 51 percentage points between 2004 and 2008. With an effective challenger from the left threatening to siphon away moderate LGBT votes, Bono-Mack would seem to have adopted her own version of Don't Ask, Don't Tell with regard to her position on marriage equality. Or at least the "Don't Tell" part.

That stance in itself is a cession to the likes of the Christian Coalition. To claim that she has no public opinion on marriage equality because it's not a federal issue is basically to agree with the far right's position that states can deny civil rights without running afoul of the Equal Protection clause of the US constitution.

On paper, it's a skillful ploy: letting loose with a rightwing dogwhistle without actually coming out and opposing equal rights for a significant portion of your base. It would likely have worked a couple of years ago. But as events last week have shown, the political climate surrounding marriage rights has shifted radically in the last couple of years. A cautious, triangulating President has stepped up to express his personal support for marriage rights. (Though his policies continue to mirror Bono-Mack's "leave it to the states" position, he said something and that is something.)

While Ruiz's Latino base in Indio and Coachella has not historically been the most gay-friendly of demographics, that seems to be changing. State Assembly member V. Manuel Perez won in the area in 2008 after announcing his opposition to Proposition 8, and a Field Poll in February found that a slim majority of Latino voters in California support same-sex marriage.

The Democratic Party has identified the California 36th as a House district the GOP may well lose in November, and is devoting significant resources to Ruiz's campaign. If the events of the past week are any indication, this may turn out to have been a good call on their part.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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