Colorado’s Civil Unions and In-State Immigrant Tuition Battles—Is a Gay-Latino Coalition Possible?

President Obama’s recent declaration of support for gay marriage and the administration’s new policy of allowing children of undocumented immigrants to apply for deferred deportation and subsequently a work permit constitute a political message that seeks to both respond to two significant constituencies as well as creating the potential for cross-pressures within one of those constituencies, the Latino community.   A Gay-Latino mobilized coalition might help the Democrats, but is only possible if policy preferences align or broader ideological orientations toward equality provide the basis for coalition formation.   And, at least anecdotally, such a coalition seems to be emerging at the national level.

One swing state, Colorado, presents a unique lens on these issues since such a coalition could affect election outcomes in a close Presidential election in this key state.  Colorado, it turns out, dealt with gay rights and immigrant rights in high-profile battles in the state’s 2012 legislative session.  Contrasting with the positive news for gay and Latino communities from the Obama Administration, Colorado’s legislature defeated both a bill allowing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples and a bill authorizing in-state tuition at the state’s institutions of higher education for children of undocumented immigrants earlier this year.  If, as Tip O’Neil’s oft-quoted maxim holds, and “All politics is local,” then we may see these policy issues magnified in terms of mobilization effects on both groups in Colorado’s November election, with potential for up-ticket benefits for the Democrats.  All this hinges on a lack of the two issues creating cross-pressures on Latinos, an empirical question addressed below.

But first, the backstory in Colorado is the 2012 state legislative session.  Earlier this year, Colorado’s State Legislature failed to pass two key bills when they were defeated in the Republican-controlled State House of Representatives, both failing to be granted potentially supportive floor votes.   The first bill would have allowed children of undocumented immigrants to pay a special tuition rate (less than non-resident, but more than resident tuition) at state institutions of higher education.  Known as the ASSET bill, the legislation was defeated in the House Finance Committee in late April on a party line vote after narrowly passing the Education Committee with support of a single Republican defection earlier in the session.  Similar bills had been introduced and failed for over five consecutive sessions.

The second bill of interest would have established civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in Colorado.  After a delay prior to passage in the State Senate, the bill failed in the regular legislative session due to procedural maneuvering in the Republican controlled House that prevented a floor vote in the last days of the session in spite of having enough votes in the full House to pass the legislation.  Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper subsequently called a special session to address the issue of civil unions, along with several other pieces of legislation that were tied up during the civil union’s procedures.  Nevertheless, the special session sealed the defeat of civil unions in Colorado as the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee was assigned the bill and subsequently voted down the bill in a party-line vote.  While it should not be a complete surprise that these two bills failed in the State House of Representatives (Colorado recently passed a same-sex marriage amendment to its Constitution and is home to prominent critics of undocumented immigration such as former U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo), the high profiles of these two bills, and seemingly anti-majoritarian procedures used to defeat the bills, has galvanized the Latino and Gay communities.

Do these two state legislative actions hold the prospect of mobilizing both groups to vote for Democratic candidates?  The potential for a Gay-Latino coalition and subsequent mobilization to defeat Republican state legislators is there, but a key question seems to be whether Latinos are cross-pressured by support for ASSET bill-type legislation and opposition to gay marriage.   Latinos in Colorado have generally supported Democratic Candidates in recent Presidential and statewide elections, and this support is unlikely to deviate in 2012 as suggested by recent polling data presented in Table 1 (source: Project New America/Keating Poll, June 7, 2012).

Table 1: Presidential Support in Colorado by Party and Ethnicity

But the high-profile civil union battle leaves the question open as to whether Latinos may be pushed away from Democratic candidates when state elections are (at least partially) framed outside the dominant economic narrative.  A June 7, 2012 Project New America/Keating Poll of registered voters in Colorado suggests that such cross-pressures are not evident, however.

In the Project New America/Keating poll, Respondents were asked “Which ONE of the following statements do you agree with most?  Gay and lesbian couples should have the same legal right to marry as do a man and woman.  Gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to form a civil union, which gives the same legal rights as marriage, but it should not be called marriage.  [Or,] There should be no legal recognition of a relationship between gay and lesbian couples.”  As Table 2 shows, Latinos exhibit generally high levels of support for a legal recognition of gay and lesbian couples.   55% of Latino respondents supported full legal rights to marriage, while an additional 18% supported full legal rights that would not be called “marriage.”  Combined, about 73% of Latinos supported some sort of legal recognition.  Only 12% opposed any legal recognition of gay and lesbian couples.  This level of support is lower than Democrats as a group, but closer to Democrats than Republicans.  Support for full marriage rights among Latinos is also higher than among Whites, of whom 41% supported such a policy and 22% opposed any legal recognition.

Table 2: Support for Same Sex Marriage Policies in Colorado

The poll results suggest that there is little, if any, cross-pressure among Latinos created by Democratic support for, and Republican opposition to, civil unions and gay marriage in Colorado. Coupled with continued Latino support for immigrant tuition rates, a Gay-Latino Democratic coalition could emerge as an important demographic component of the 2012 Colorado elections.  The degree of mobilization of these two groups is not clear from the data presented above, but both groups have obviously expressed displeasure against Republican positions on these issues and mobilized independently.  If national attention to the legislative drama brings in outside resources for state legislative races in 2012 (a distinct possibility since the election will determine control of the State House where Republicans currently hold the slimmest 33-32 majority) and both groups are mobilized by such attention, Gay and Latino participation may provide some up-ballot support and subsequently bolster the Democrat’s chances of winning Colorado’s Presidential contest.  Tip O’Neil may not have imagined civil unions and tuition issues when coining the phrase, but in 2012, these two issues are high-profile local issues in Colorado that may affect the national electoral prospects of the Presidential candidates.

Robert R. Preuhs is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Metropolitan State College of Denver. He has published numerous articles on state politics and minority representation. His most recent article, co-authored with Eric Gonzalez Juenke, “Irreplaceable Legislators? Rethinking Minority Representatives in the New Century” appears in The American Journal of Political Science.

The commentary of this article reflects the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Latino Decisions. Latino Decisions and Pacific Market Research, LLC make no representations about the accuracy of the content of the article.


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