Sparing Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins the ouster that two years ago ended the judicial career of three colleagues in Iowa’s historic ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, the state’s voters were swept up in a tide of increasing tolerance that spread from shore to shore in Tuesday’s election.
Coupled with outright approval of same-sex marriage in Maine and Maryland and action by Minnesota voters to turn back a proposed ban, the Iowa vote to retain Wiggins makes for a 4-for-4 win at the ballot box for marriage equality advocates nationally, said gay rights leader Donna Red Wing.
“We knew it was about marriage,” said Red Wing, executive director of One Iowa, the state’s largest advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Iowans. “There’s no other reason they targeted Justice Wiggins. They made it a referendum on marriage, so I think we won. I think folks here in Iowa have lived with and celebrated same-gender marriage for three years and were not going to change.”
What’s changed in two years, she said, is that Iowans who followed the advice of same-sex marriage opponent Bob Vander Plaats and voted to oust justices over their support of landmark Varnum v. Brien ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, discovered there was no boogey man hiding in their neighbors’ closets.
“They looked at their neighbors and saw real faces and heard real voices and were conflicted,” Red Wing said. “I think the right has gone so radically right that there are people right of center who will move to the left.”
New Era for Progressives?
Gay marriage issues were just a part of last week's elections, she said.
Washington voters not only passed a referendum for gay marriage, they also joined voters in Colorado in legalizing recreational marijuana. That, as much as civil rights issues like gay marriage, tells Red Wing the pendulum had shifted so far to the right that progressive voters used the ballot box Tuesday as a correction.
“I think the right has gone so radically right that there are people right of center who will move to the left,” she said.
Staunch conservative Congressman Steve King, R-Iowa, isn’t so much conflicted – clearly, he isn’t given his support for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law defining marriage as between a man and a woman – as he is politically prudent.
King, who hasn’t ruled out running for Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat in 2014 and presumably would have to move closer to the center to win in a statewide campaign, has taken a position of resigned acceptance and concedes that gay marriage is probably here to stay, according to Radio Iowa.
“That’s, I think, the kind of prediction that we can expect from looking at these results around the country,” King told Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson. “Here in Iowa, there’s not going to be a vote on it that I can see and if that’s the case and another two years go by, I would never say never…but it doesn’t look very optimistic for people who believe in traditional marriage, as I do.”
Vote Against Bullying the Judicial System
Ostensibly, last week’s retention vote was procedural, a simple yes or no on the merits of Wiggins keeping his job. The retention vote system has been in place since the 1960s and, ironically enough, was implemented to keep the judiciary free of political influence.
After the history-making 2010 vote when three justices – former Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and Justices David Baker and Michael Streit – were turned out of office, groups like One Iowa and Justice Not Politics stepped up an awareness campaign.
“There’s been more awareness from people who want equal rights,” said Tizzy Hyatt, a straight Iowan who joined her One Iowa friends in watching the judicial retention votes come in. “So exactly how has your life changed since gay marriage became legal? Oh, yeah, not at all."
John Burns of Johnston, also watching the results come in with One Iowa, recoiled at "the idea that an interest group can go in and bully the judicial system into trying to accept their extremist views."
"The idea that you can over-rule a court decision on a constitutional issue – that just cuts to the core of our whole system,” he said. “If you can get enough people together, you can basically undo decades of constitutional precedent.”
Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor and nationally sought-after expert on Iowa politics, said the retention vote reflected both Iowans’ concern about a judiciary free of politics and a middling of attitudes on the issue of same-sex marriage.
“Also, Obama helped because he drove up the number of voters so they overwhelmed the no vote,” Schmidt said.
"Everything Shifted Tuesday"
But votes elsewhere in the country provided validation that the mood of the country has shifted to a new tolerance and acceptance of social justice issues that are neither red nor blue – something Red Wing said should be a “wakeup call to the Republican Party to look to its more moderate leadership” because the far right has had its day.
“I hope we have come to that place where Democrats and Republicans can have the arguments with civility to get things done and do the work of the people. Maybe that’s where these elections will take us,” she said. “Whether you’re talking same-gender marriage or whether we are talking about marijuana reform, the country is moving and some people are going to be left behind.
“Everything shifted Tuesday,” she said. “The Tea Party brand politics are completely irrelevant. I like to think of it as the last gasps of a dying beast as we move into more progressive times.”