Dr. Dean’s diagnosis on gay marriage: “It’s a non-issue.”

Howard-dean Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is in Iowa this evening.  He hosted a health care forum in Des Moines late this afternoon.  This evening he's headlining a high-dollar fundraiser for "One Iowa" — a group that's lobbied for gay marriage.

In an interview with Radio Iowa (me) and IowaPolitics.com (Travis), Dean rejected the contention from Republicans that gay marriage will be a big issue in the 2010 elections.

"This was a terrible issue when I ran for reelection in 2000 and it was a total non-issue in 2002. And marriage, you know, our legislature (in Vermont), we did (gay) marriage this year. Our legislature overrode the Republican governor's veto.  Now that's unheard of.  I was shocked.  I didn't see that coming either," Dean said. "This has just become a non-issue in states where there's a lot of neighborliness because even if people don't think, for religious reasons, that gay people ought to be able to get married, they're also respectful of their neighbors who may have a gay person in their family…It's a heartland phenomenon.  It's a small rural state phenomenon…In small towns where people know each other, it's much harder to be against someone you know that against someone you don't know."  

Dean said he was "shocked" when he heard the state supreme court had legalized gay marriage in Iowa.

"I honestly hadn't followed the case and I just was amazed 'cause you know I knew so much about Iowa.  I spent so much time here," Dean said, referencing his months of campaigning in advance of the 2004 Iowa Caucuses  "I have to say that once the decision came down, I was pretty sure that Iowans — being practical and fair-minded — would ultimately accept it, but I also knew that the right wing is very strong here and that there would be a big to-do about it."

Tonight's fundraiser was billed as a reception to honor Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) & House Speaker Pat Murphy (D-Dubuque).  Republicans tried but failed in the just-concluded legislative session to set the wheels in motion for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment which would ban gay marriage, but Murphy and Gronstal would not allow legislative action on the issue.

"As you know, I'm the first governor ever to sign a civil unions bill which nowadays is no big deal but then it was a very big deal and I just believe in fairness and social justice…I know what it takes to stand up for a decision like this and it takes a lot of courage and you always want people in public life who have courage," Dean said in the interview. "I mean, there are some Republicans that I've felt like writing checks to because they've done things, not just in terms of gay rights, but other things that, you know, were very difficult but were the right thing to do but not politically-popular."

Finally, Dean offered this long thought about why he considers the "tide" to be turning on gay marriage. "The tide is turning and it's going to turn," Dean said. "This new generation, you know, we did polling among Christian evangelicals when I was D.N.C. chair.  Christian evangelicals under 35 are very different from Christian evangelicals over 35 and, you know, this whole younger generation is an extraordinary generation and they want to put aside the things that divide us and they want to focus on the things we can do together to make the country a better place.  This new generation is not nearly as divisive. "This new generation is not nearly as divisive or confrontational as my generation and they also all know somebody who is gay because somebody has publicly said so to them and once you know somebody who is gay or lesbian, you can't say the things that you used to say about them. I remember growing up, we used to say things about gay people; we didn't know anybody who was gay — we didn't think we knew anybody who was gay.  Once somebody says, 'I'm gay and I wish you wouldn't do that,' you don't talk like that anymore because they're a human being and that's what this new generation of Americans, this is just one more minority that's stood up for itself and is now being incorporated into the body politic of America with equal rights."

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.