S urrounded by kids, many with gay and lesbian parents, Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill on May 18 that extended to domestic partners all>"/>
Surrounded by kids, many with gay and lesbian parents, Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill on May 18 that extended to domestic partners all the rights granted by the state to married couples. The partner of a firefighter killed in the line of duty can now receive a death benefit, and partners can make medical decisions for each other.
Applauding behind the governor's left shoulder as she put her signature on the bill was beaming Representative Jamie Pedersen, the blond, baby-faced family man who shepherded the legislation through the state House. Since he first won his seat three years ago, Pedersen has been instrumental in passing through Olympia a series of bills granting increasing rights to gay and lesbian couples. "That's a pretty big privilege," he says. "To be a part of making progressive change."
The Yale-educated lawyer works on corporate mergers as a day job, but raised his profile in the early '00s by devoting countless volunteer hours to Lambda Legal, the gay and lesbian civil rights organization. Through Lambda, Pedersen aided the plaintiffs in Anderson v. King County, a lawsuit initiated in 1998 that challenged the state's Defense of Marriage Act. As the case wound its way through the courts, he was named a grand marshal of Seattle's 2005 Pride Parade. And that November, then-Representative Ed Murray contacted Pedersen to say he was planning to give up his state House seat for a run at the state Senate. He asked if Pedersen would be interested in running for his vacated position representing the 43rd District, an area covering Capitol Hill to Ravenna.
For Pedersen, the answer came when the state Supreme Court finally handed down a decision in the Anderson case. Ruling 5–4, the justices said that under the state Constitution, it is up to the legislature to set the rules for who is and is not recognized as a married couple. "But for politics, we'd be getting married [in Washington] and it wouldn't be an issue," Pedersen says. "And I had a chance to do something about correcting the injustice."
Pedersen and his partner Eric Pedersen were planning to start a family of their own, so the subject had become personal. After assuring Eric that a stint in Olympia wouldn't prevent them from having kids, Pedersen jumped into the race to replace Murray. He eked through a crowded primary, and in the 2007 session began working for marriage equality, first by playing a supporting role in promoting the creation of a state domestic-partnership registry.
Murray says that when Pedersen first arrived, he was pushing hard for a marriage bill. It took some convincing to get him to accept the more-incremental process that has thus far been successful. "In court you have the ability to seek exactly what you want and you deserve. It's natural to the process to be somewhat absolutist," a now-more-nuanced Pedersen says. "The political process is very different. Even if you can convince a majority of legislators to do something, and risk their careers, we still have a very strong initiative and referendum system [which can overturn those actions]."
As chair of the House Judiciary Committee this past legislative session, Pedersen sponsored the House version of the domestic-partnership bill and brought it up for hearings in early February. The hearing room had to be expanded to accommodate the crowd that came to testify. Pedersen politely listened both to backers and to a parade of people who said the bill would force God-fearing Washingtonians to pull their kids from public schools, make polygamy legal, and threaten the eternal souls of legislators who voted for the measure. Pedersen never snapped back, only firmly reminding the crowd to keep their testimony to the substance of the bill. The measure passed, almost entirely along party lines.
Gay-rights advocates in the legislature will decide their next move after they see what becomes of Referendum 71, which seeks to overturn the domestic-partnership bill and which, at press time, still stood a chance of qualifying for the November ballot.
But Pedersen is confident the Referendum will fail. And gay marriage will be back on the table in Olympia in the near future. In fact, he says, it's been easier to make progress on this issue than on others he cares about, like public health. Meanwhile, Pedersen has plenty else to keep him busy: Through a surrogate mom, he, his partner, and their son Trygve just welcomed new triplets.—Laura Onstot