With 55 percent of Wisconsinites now in support of same-sex marriage, according to a recent Marquette University poll, Gov. Scott Walker has suddenly gone silent about an issue he once vigorously opposed: same-sex marriage.
Walker made no bones concerning how he felt on the subject before the polling numbers changed and Wisconsinites witnessed the heart-wrenching joy of lesbian and gay couples tying the knot after decades of being forced to live as virtual strangers under the law.
Nine years ago, Walker campaigned strongly in support of the same-sex marriage ban that U.S. Circuit Court Judge Barbara Crabb ruled is unconstitutional on June 6.
"We must change the Wisconsin State Constitution to say that marriage is to be between one man and one woman," Walker said in November 2005 during a brief run for governor that year. "My belief in this position is even stronger today."
In 2006, Walker joined 59 percent of the state’s voters to add an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage along with any other status by another name that resembles it.
As far back as 1997, as a member of the state Assembly, he voted for a bill to prohibit same-sex marriages and declare those conducted in other states to be invalid. In 2009, as Milwaukee County executive, Walker vetoed a measure to provide benefits to the same-sex partners of county workers. And shortly after being elected governor in 2011, Walker fired the state's attorney defending Wisconsin's domestic registry law. (The state Supreme Court is currently weighing whether the registry violates the state ban on gay marriage.)
Even as Walker maintained his opposition to same-sex marriage, he had several gays and lesbians, most of them closeted, among his inner political circle. One of his top gay advisors, Tim Russell, went to prison for stealing from a veterans fund that Walker gave him control over.
Walker’s anti-gay positions helped the state’s GOP attract evangelical Christian voters to support the corporate agenda Walker brought to the state on behalf of his mega-wealthy donors. Virulent anti-gay and anti-choice people are often single-issue voters who don’t mind that policies catering to Big Money hurt them economically. Election after election, they vote against their own financial interests for candidates who embrace the far-right Christian trilogy known as
“guns, God and gays.”
The political situation, however, became more complicated for Walker in the days following Crabb’s ruling. Hit hard by political scandals and broken promises made to voters about the state’s economy, Walker is locked in a virtual tie with his likely 2016 Democratic challenger Mary Burke.
Now Walker, who is famously all about politics all the time, faces a real conundrum: whether to back off from his gay-marriage opposition and lose young independent voters or risk offending the Christian evangelicals who helped to elect him.
In typical fashion, according to veteran Walker-watchers, the governor has so far chosen to sit out the issue and hope it resolves itself before the polls open in November 2016.
Asked by about his position on same-sex marriage, Walker has repeatedly dodged the question.
“My position has been clear. I voted in the past. It really doesn't matter," Walker said to an AP reporter following a campaign event June 12.
"Voters don't talk to me about that,” Walker added. “They talk to me about the economy, they talk to me about their kids' schools, they talk to me about making sure we keep our finances in order."
“Are you re-thinking your position on gay marriage?” asked a reporter at a groundbreaking in Oak Creek on June 12.
“No. I’m just not stating one at all,” Walker replied, going on to say that the issue is for the courts to decide.
Walker initially ordered the state Vital Records Office not to process the same-sex marriage licenses filed by county clerks throughout the state. Sixty of Wisconsin's 72 county clerks had issued 555 marriage licenses to same-sex couples as of midday June 12, based on a survey by The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen sought emergency injunctions to halt the marriages, first applying to Crabb and then to the Seventh District Court of Appeals in Chicago. He warned county clerks who provided marriage licenses to same-sex couples that they could face criminal charges.
But in an abrupt change of course on June 11, the governor told Vital Records to begin processing the licenses, without explaining his shift.
While Walker tries to avoid or play both sides of the issue, Burke has been forthright about her pro-equality views since opposing the constitutional ban against marriage equality in 2006.
"Finally recognizing that committed, loving Wisconsin couples have the freedom to marry whomever they choose represents an important step forward for our state," Burke said in a statement June 12. "From strengthening our communities to making our state more competitive economically — marriage equality makes Wisconsin stronger."
Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chair Mike Tate has indicated that Walker’s sudden indifference toward one of the Republican Party’s signature issues — halting the nation’s march toward marriage equality — could become a character issue in the gubernatorial race.
"Ever since he was in the Legislature, Scott Walker has made clear with his words and his actions that he believes gay and lesbian couples don't deserve full protection and equal treatment under the law,” Tate said in a statement. "That he would now cynically skirt questions on marriage equality in the name of political expediency is an act of utter cowardice.
"Democrats and independents have long recognized that Scott Walker will say one thing and do another in order to advance his political career. Now even his supporters on the far-right are coming to see that Scott Walker's only loyalties lie with himself."
So far, few people on the religious right have criticized Walker for standing silent while the central tenet of their beliefs fails in the courts. But Julaine Appling, whose group Wisconsin Family Action originated the amendment outlawing same-sex marriage in the state, has warned her fellow Republicans that they back away from heterosexual-only marriage at their peril.
“Elected officials who are running for office this year in Wisconsin and elsewhere should pay close attention,” Appling wrote on her blog. “They’re concerned about their base. Well, their base says abandoning the party’s long-held position on marriage is not smart.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.