What's a Democrat, anyway? That’s what Norma Vasquez de Houdek is asking.
She sat in the gallery of the Roundhouse and watched 10 of them vote against a domestic partnership bill on Thursday, Feb. 26. "Typically, Democrats are really fair-minded, are really forward-thinking and champions of human rights in this state," Vasquez de Houdek says.
She and her partner Mary Houdek tied the knot five years ago during those few short hours in February 2004 when County Clerk Victoria Dunlap allowed 64 same-sex couples to marry. Thursday's 25-17 vote was devastating, she says, because she thought it would be a close one. "It was a simple thing that should have been easily passed," she says. "They really watered down the bill and changed it to cross the aisle."
Domestic partnerships are not marriage, says Whitney Potter, spokesperson for New Mexico's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The debate [in the Senate] was mostly focused on the issue of marriage," she says. "This isn't a marriage bill. It's the basic legal protections that families need to survive and thrive."
Many legislators find relief being on the prevailing side.That’s what happened in this case.
Sen. Cisco McSorley
Sen. Cisco McSorley, who sponsored the legislation, says it was much closer to being passed than the eight-vote margin indicates. He says he made arrangements with several senators who agreed to support his bill if the vote looked to be close and their support would tip it over the edge. “Had we needed their vote, they would have been there for us,” McSorley says. “If we had been one or two votes closer, we would have won.”
McSorley explains that some senators don’t want to be on the losing end of controversial bills. “Many legislators find relief being on the prevailing side,” McSorley says. “That’s what happened in this case.”
This year’s legislative session has been discouraging for McSorley. “Financially, we’re throwing the widows and orphans under the bus. We’re destroying the environment. We are giving special interests special consideration in the budget,” he says. “This is the worst session I’ve lived through in 25 years.”
In my district, they told me they don't support it, and that's why I voted against it.
Sen. George Muñoz
There's no question in Vasquez de Houdek's mind that someday domestic partnerships will be a reality in New Mexico. "It's not a matter of 'if,’ it's a matter of 'when,' as it is with all civil rights movements when people are oppressed," she says, "especially in the United States when we have separation of church and state."
Democratic Sen. Carlos Cisneros, who opposed the bill, says he would have supported the legislation if the religious community had taken a neutral stance on it. The problem, Cisneros says, is the bill makes a reference to the section of New Mexico law that deals with marriage.
If that reference is removed, Cisneros says the House version of the bill could clear the Legislature during this session. “I support the idea of partnerships, and I support the idea of human rights unequivocally,” Cisneros says. “If those language changes are made, then there’s clearer potential for the bill to be viewed favorably in the Senate.”
We're fighting for our lives and we're fighting for our rights. You call that being an advocate? I'd call it just survival, to tell you the truth.
Norma Vasquez de Houdek
Equality New Mexico, an LGBT advocacy organization, says on its website that it's working with allies to get the Senate measure revived. "The opposition is very well financed and organized," says the EQNM statement.
Though there are plenty of churches and religious organizations that support the gay community, their voices have not been heard, says Vasquez de Houdek. "Those of us married in Sandoval County were all married by religious people," she points out. "But we're all outnumbered by big religious organizations that pour money into this issue."
Somehow Vasquez de Houdek still has faith. "New Mexico is a very fair state," she says. "The people of New Mexico understand rights and responsibilities, and we believe in a lot of personal freedoms."
Sen. George Muñoz says he probably would have voted for the bill if his constituents were in favor of it. "In my district, they told me they don't support it, and that's why I voted against it," Muñoz says. If it were up to him, the Democrat says the question of whether to allow domestic partnerships would be put to a statewide vote. ACLU spokesperson Potter says there is support around the state.
In April, Mary Houdek and Norma Vasquez de Houdek will have been together for 22 years. "And we still like each other," Norma laughs. "Mary and I are going to love and live and be a couple no matter what. In America, we should have our God-given rights," she says. "The world hasn't fallen. Our marriage hasn't hurt anybody else's marriage. We're good role models for anybody's community of what a lasting marriage is.”
Vasquez de Houdek doesn't consider herself an activist. "We're fighting for our lives and we're fighting for our rights," she says. "You call that being an advocate? I'd call it just survival, to tell you the truth."