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Hillary Clinton, Portman and gay marriage: What took her so long?

March 18, 2013 |  5:01 pm

A same-sex marriage proponent holds a gay marriage pride flag in front of the Supreme Court in Washington

I’m sorry, did I miss something?

Robin AbcarianIs Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive 2016 presidential nominee, just now coming out now in support of gay marriage? How weird.

How is it possible that Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican stalwart who hails from the most conservative  part of Ohio, beat her to the punch last week? 

The gay marriage issue is just turning this world upside down.

As the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to overturn California’s law against gay marriage and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, every influential voice matters.  

Certainly, the justices are not immune to the pull of history. They undoubtedly know that in the last 10 years, support for legalizing gay marriage has leapt. In the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, http://www.langerresearch.com/uploads/1147a5GayMarriage.pdf 58% support it, vs. 37% a decade ago.

President Obama has been out in favor of gay marriage for months, so it’s not as if the issue’s embrace by another high-profile liberal is going to make a difference to the justices. And Hillary can’t even be said to be a leader in her own family; both her husband, Bill, and daughter, Chelsea, are on record supporting gay marriage. Was anyone, anywhere holding his or her breath that Hillary would not support gay marriage?

By contrast, if you want to talk about courage, if you want to know who really put something on the line to support gay marriage, talk about Portman, a man whose anti-gay marriage cred is nothing short of impeccable. He was a cosponsor of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and has long espoused the idea that heterosexual-only marriage is a core value.

You can tick right down through the Republican platform and find virtually nothing with which this man disagrees. His party loyalty is one of the main reasons -- besides being a native of a swing state -- that Mitt Romney came close to choosing him as his running mate last year. This is a man who simply does not color outside the political lines.

Until now.

Two years ago, his oldest child, Will, told his parents, Rob and Jane, that he is gay. And that it was not a choice. In an op-ed for the Columbus Dispatch, Portman said he had decided to support gay marriage because of Will, who is now a freshman at Yale.

“Ronald Reagan said all great change in America begins at the dinner table, and that’s been the case in my family,” wrote Portman. “With the overwhelming majority of young people in support of allowing gay couples to marry, in some respects the issue has become more generational than partisan.'

Portman, a freshman senator who is up for reelection in 2016, is the only Republican in the Senate who supports gay marriage.

Despite surveys showing increasing support in the U.S. for gay marriage, Ohio conservatives have clung to the fact that in 2004, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage passed in their state with 62% of the vote.

The chairman of the Ohio Republican Party has said publicly the party will stand by Portman. Closer to Portman’s home in Cincinnati, Hamilton County GOP Chairman Alex Triantafilou said many younger Republicans are excited, but “a very vocal group of strong social conservatives” has made its displeasure known.

“Rob is so beloved here and so respected that he’s getting a lot of personal support,” said Triantafilou. “I don’t know that he will lead a revolution on this topic right away, though.”

Indeed. “It’s gonna cost him his seat,” predicted Phil Burress, president of Citizens for Community Values, a conservative evangelical group. Burress told me Monday that Portman, a good friend for decades, called him to share his change of heart about gay marriage the night before he went public.

Portman started off by saying he had “some bad news” and sounded depressed, said Burress, who “nearly dropped the phone” when Portman told him the reason for his call.

Portman told Burress, and reiterated in his op-ed piece, that he believes the issue of gay marriage should be left to the states. He told Burress he would not campaign in favor of gay marriage.

“He said he would not go public to try to sway the court,” said Burress. “It was almost like he didn’t want to do this.”

The idea that a child’s homosexuality could sway a senator into support for gay marriage, said Burress, is unthinkable. “As a sitting U.S. senator, you do not change your values based on one child in your family.”

And yet, that’s exactly what Portman has done, like so many other parents, relatives and friends of gay people before him. Only most of them have not put their careers on the line to do the right thing.

-- Robin Abcarian

Robin Abcarian is a Times columnist.

Earlier:

CNN blew it in coverage of Ohio rape case.

Twitter: @robinabcarian Email: robin.abcarian@latimes.com

Photo: A same-sex marriage proponent holds a gay marriage pride flag in front of the Supreme Court in Washington in November. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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