Censured but still outspoken: A Republican legislator stands up for marriage equity

Maureen Walsh's impromptu speech on marriage for all went viral. As a statewide vote on the issue approaches, Walsh looks at the path that led to a split with some in her party.
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Maureen Walsh in an ad supporting Referendum 74

Maureen Walsh's impromptu speech on marriage for all went viral. As a statewide vote on the issue approaches, Walsh looks at the path that led to a split with some in her party.

In countless living rooms across Washington, state Rep. Maureen Walsh from Walla Walla has been telling her story. Set to soft music, her message is measured, pleasantly backlit, and unmistakably firm: “As a Republican,” she says, “I don’t believe the government should tell anyone who they can or cannot marry.”

The televised ad represents, for Walsh, yet another very public step forward in a struggle for “fundamental fairness.” The ad is sponsored by Washington United for Marriage, the coalition working to approve Referendum 74 that would give all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, the right to marry within Washington state.

Admitting there was a time when she didn’t know what “going viral meant,” Walsh has learned quite a lot about the connecting power of social media since her impassioned Feb. 8 speech on the House floor in support of SB 6239, the “marriage bill,” was posted to YouTube and viewed by more than 2 million people in the weeks and months following its delivery. Clips from her speech were widely reposted and discussed by a host of national news sites, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and MSNBC.

Almost overnight, Walsh became a public voice for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. In addition to attending local LGBT-supportive events, she served as a spokesperson for the “Yes for Referendum 74” position in the Video Voters’ Guide, a project sponsored by TVW, Washington State’s public affairs television network. In April, Walsh shared the stage with Betty White and Cher at the annual Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Awards in Los Angeles; after greeting the crowd, she was honored with an enthusiastic standing ovation. The Polish Embassy invited Walsh to travel to Warsaw on an all-expense-paid trip to speak to citizens on the subject of homophobia (she declined due to her schedule).

Though it’s not a role she could have envisioned for herself, Walsh hasn’t fled from the spotlight, explaining that “when a group of individuals feel this level of oppression, sometimes you just have to take a strong stand. I am extremely confident I will be on the right side of history on this issue. … Discrimination is something we can’t tolerate in this country.”

From a historic corner building thronged by vintage shops, cafes, and upscale tasting rooms along Walla Walla’s brick-lined Main Street, Walsh keeps tabs on the happenings of her community and her family’s 18-year sausage business, Onion World. At the farmers’ market on Saturdays, she mans the till under a canopy set up next to a painted sausage truck, steps away from cheese mongers, flower and vegetable growers, and local artisans hawking handmade wares. Customers are handed bun-cozied sausages piled with sweet onions, then encouraged to add generous squirts of mustard and grab plenty of napkins. As Walsh quips, speaking from experience: “Sausage and laws — two things you should never see being made.” 

Affectionately called “Mo” by her Democrat and Republican colleagues, Walsh was first elected to the Legislature in 2004. Cajoled by “the love of her life” into moving west from Cincinnati as a young bride, she is clearly rooted in the rich soil of her adopted hometown and her geographically and culturally diverse 16th Legislative District, happiest when surrounded by familiar people and places. Despite the long-distance demands of serving in the Legislature, she isn’t the sort who would dream about becoming a global phenomenon. Walsh prefers the small-town pace, where traffic is a rarity and locals sit on benches to casually gab about the weather or the kids; a self-described “talker rather than a speaker,” she occasionally lets her chats morph into rollicking song.

Walsh is up for re-election this year against Mary Ruth Edwards — a fellow Republican, teacher, former Marine, and single mother of two grown children who has been endorsed by the Franklin County Republicans, a group that censured Walsh for her sponsorship of the domestic partnership bill in 2009.

Edwards has made it clear that she believes in the “traditional definition of marriage [as] the coming together of one man and one woman to create children and provide a stable environment for raising the children, while providing gender role models as well as relationship models.” On her website, she also promises: "In Olympia, I will work to repeal the same-sex marriage law recently passed, if not repealed via referendum at the ballot box."

Aware that she and her opponent are diametrically opposed on this issue, Walsh remains confident that votes this November will again be tallied in her favor. When Edwards and Walsh faced off in the August primary, Walsh won by a margin of just over 62 to 38 percent.

As one of only two House Republicans who voted in favor of the marriage bill, Walsh understood that her stance on this issue would create ripple effects, if only within her own party. When the Franklin County party members censured her in 2009 for her support of an earlier gay-rights measure on partner rights, they released an official statement explaining their decision, declaring that although “Representative Walsh has claimed that Republicans favor her agenda of stripping traditional marriage of its meaning and watering down the definition of the words marriage and family… [she] does not represent the values of the Franklin County Republican Party.” In spite of this sentiment, she has routinely been endorsed by other Republican groups in her district.

Yet her speech explaining her vote on this issue was personal rather than partisan, and based on conviction rather than conciliation. It was also a speech that almost didn’t happen: Assuming her vote would be “just a quiet ‘yes,’ ” Walsh decided “to get up, and tell constituents why you’re supporting this bill” only at the last minute, and without preparation of any talking points. Even then, the speech was cut off when the gavel fell after four minutes and Walsh assumed her time was up; in fact, Jim Moeller, speaker pro tempore, was merely trying to quiet the laughter following her comment that the term “domestic partnership” sounds “like some sort of Merry Maids franchise.” Although she could have continued on for six minutes more, Walsh reflects now that she’s glad the speech ended when it did, as she had said all she needed to say.

At times visibly emotional in the video when remembering her husband, Kelly, who died of a massive heart attack six years ago, at other times eliciting startled laughter when she admitted to not missing the sex, or maybe just a little, Walsh explained her position with refreshing, even startling candor. Describing the blessings connected to her 23-year marriage, she asked: “How can I deny anyone the right to have that incredible bond with another individual in life?” Later, she described her relationship with her daughter, Shauna, who came out as a lesbian two years ago. “By God, someday I want to throw a wedding for that kid,” she said.

In response, thousands of emails and letters sent to Walsh over the following weeks conveyed gratitude, love, and support; negative feedback was also received, but in a considerably smaller amount. Some gay adolescents shared with Walsh that they had been considering suicide, but her speech “gave them hope.” To these young people, Walsh wrote back: “Know that your parents love you…they’re just so scared for you.”

Such stories of pain and struggle confirm for Walsh what she had come to feel was the right thing to do. “I’d rather err on the side of love,” she says. Remembering the way legislators dubbed marriage equality “the distraction issue of the session” leading up to the vote, Walsh wondered if this is how Sen. Ed Murray or Rep. Jamie Pedersen (both gay legislators in committed same-sex relationships, the latter a father of four) would have categorized the proposed legislation. She insists that political expediency must be set aside at times so that legislators can vote, as she has, according to conscience. Constituents who may disagree with her on this issue have shown that they nonetheless trust her judgment and appreciate her work in other areas such as early education, job creation and preservation, agriculture, and health care: Sixty-four percent of her district voted against the extension of domestic partnership rights to same-sex couples in 2009, yet overwhelmingly re-elected Walsh a year later.

Still, other constituents have accused Walsh of casting a vote for personal rather than professional reasons, citing her daughter’s orientation as the driving factor. In response to this criticism, Walsh has pointed out that she worked on domestic-partnership legislation before her daughter came out to her as a lesbian, and would “vote on behalf of equal rights anyway.” They have also insisted that Walsh, in her role as an elected official, should represent her constituents’ position on this issue rather than her own. Walsh has become fond of quoting Edmund Burke, a 17th century Irish statesman and orator admired by both conservatives and liberals, who once said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays you, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

When people ask Walsh if she would ever consider switching her allegiance to the Democratic Party over this issue, Walsh explains that she remains hopeful that her support of marriage equality will eventually be shared by other Republican legislators. Exploring this idea further, she mused, “Maybe I appreciate the challenge of being a Republican who is compassionate and really believes that the work we are trying to do — empowering individuals to succeed — is the most important role of government.” In the meantime, she is careful to keep donations sent to her from LGBT supporters, estimated by Walsh at approximately $25,000, separate from funds that could be tapped by the Republican National Party and funneled to candidates unsupportive of LGBT rights.

Encouraging others to succeed and be self-sufficient seems to be sound parenting advice too; Shauna Walsh, her mother’s “hero” and “the light of her father’s eyes,” is quick to point out that it was her mother who first taught her to trust in her own capabilities and potential. Describing Walsh as “strong and independent, a wonder-woman,” Shauna explained that she and her two brothers were raised to believe that they could accomplish anything in life. She recalled, “My parents were always together as a unit — my heroes; I consider what they had together to be the epitome of a loving relationship.”

When Kelly died in his son’s arms, Maureen Walsh’s first thought was that he wouldn’t be able to walk his daughter down the aisle. Shauna Walsh feels that loss too, though she said that she continues to feel her father’s presence in her life, and recognizes the many ways his legacy still impacts her family and the community. She added that the tragedy has, ironically, also brought healing: recalling that she grew up rarely seeing her mother on her birthday because it inevitably coincided with a legislative session, their fierce closeness — stretched and deepened since she moved home from Linfield College to be with her family after her father’s death — is a relationship Shauna doesn’t take for granted. She says her mother's support of love and acceptance for countless others, gay and straight, makes all of those missed birthdays worth it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Julie Gunter is a freelance writer and teacher based in Seattle. Her articles have ranged from profiles of Pacific Northwest Catholics for the National Catholic Reporter to theater and arts reviews in Seattle's Child.