What would you call a candidate who was on the right fringe of reproductive choice issues and used attacks on gay marriage to get elected? If you're like most people, you'd probably call her "Republican." But in the case of Marietta's Jennifer Garrison, state representative from Ohio's 93rd district, you'd be wrong.
Garrison's district is in southeast Ohio, along the Pennsylvania border. It's a rural, conservative area, and it's understandable that a Democrat representing it would have some positions to the right of most Ohio Dems. But Garrison has announced her run for statewide office. In early August, she launched her campaign to be the Democratic nominee for secretary of state to replace Jennifer Brunner, who is running for the U.S. Senate. (She joins Franklin County commissioner Marilyn Brown, who announced last winter.) The response — from those paying attention this early — ranged from cautious curiosity to outraged backlash to endorsements from 35 fellow Democratic state legislators.
Last year, Garrison responded to a questionnaire from abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. She stated that she supported banning all abortions except to save the mother's life and declaring fetuses to have full "personhood" rights. Politically, these are far-right positions.
NARAL's Ohio executive director Kellie Copeland says, "Obviously we're unable to support people who hold such extreme views about the rights of women over their own bodies. When we have candidates who advocate outlawing abortion, it's disturbing."
She points out that, unlike anti-abortion Congressman Tim Ryan (Oh-17), who has been a leader in supporting Prevention First, which looks at preventing unwanted pregnancies through comprehensive sex education and access to birth control, Garrison has no such track record.
"She has had opportunities to sign on [to Prevention First], but she hasn't," says Copeland. "We introduced it [in the Ohio legislature] in 2006; we introduced it last session, we're about to introduce it again."
Janet Carson, chairman of the Geauga County Democratic Party, hopes to hear Garrison clarify her stands on women's issues.
"I think any candidate — especially any woman candidate — that doesn't put women's issues at the top of their list is not a candidate a majority of the Democratic party could support," she says. "Ohio's a conservative enough state that we need our candidate to be pro-women's issues and pro-rights issues. We need to elect officials who are willing to take a broader look at Ohio and bring us into 21st century. I'm afraid Jennifer Garrison is too conservative for a majority of Democrats in Ohio."
She adds, "I'm going to invite both candidates to our regional women's caucus meeting, so women voters can understand the positions of both candidates not only on issues of choice and women's issues, but on issues of the secretary of state office. I don't know her stands on issues so it would be impossible to make an educated judgment on her as a secretary of state candidate."
Michael Daniels, co-owner of Columbus-based gay-oriented Outlook Media, has made up his mind: He's launched the Facebook page Oppose Jennifer Garrison for Ohio Secy of State, which currently has more than 325 members, more than twice as many as Garrison's Facebook campaign page. He says he'll endorse Republican Jon Husted if Garrison is the Democratic nominee, pointing out that Husted is better on gay issues: As speaker of the House, he killed a bill that would have banned gay adoptions in Ohio.
Garrison didn't merely support the 2004 ballot issue banning gay marriage — she took an aggressive stance to the right of her Republican opponent to win her seat in the legislature. In a letter published in the Marietta Times in April that year, she wrote, "As bewildering as the gay marriage debate may seem, we know precisely where it originated: In a courtroom in Boston, Mass, ... It is troubling that a small group of Massachusetts judges are rewriting the laws of their state. As we learned in school, it is the role of judges to interpret laws, not write them. Even more unsettling is the fact that judicial activism in Massachusetts could set policy for other states.
"Marriage is a fundamental building block of society, one that predates our nation and even the birth of Christ. Ultimately, it is a statement about our values as human beings. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney — himself an opponent of same sex marriage — said it well: 'The institution of marriage was not created by government, and it should not be redefined by government.' I agree."
These are well-worn Republican talking points.
"I understand the Democratic party should be a big tent," says Daniels. "But as far as human rights and moving progressive values forward, we shouldn't be giving up ground."
Some might ask why Garrison's positions on these "values" issues matter to an office concerned with overseeing elections and maintaining business filings.
"The secretary of state plays pivotal role in reapportionment and how the districts are drawn," says Copeland. "The reason we have a majority of anti-choice legislators in the [state] Senate and House is how the districts are drawn. Polls show a majority of voters are pro-choice. So I think it matters very much who sits on the reapportionment board."
Says Daniels: "A person's view on basic rights issues has a lot to do with how much trust I have in how they're going to run fair, free and open elections. I believe how you approach voting rights has a lot with how you approach civil rights in general."
While Garrison voted against HB 3 in 2006 and SB 380 in 2008 — both aimed at erecting hurdles to voting rights — she hasn't been outspoken on the issues they raised. Her campaign website offers generalities about "good government" and "transparency." That raises the question of why she is running for this particular office.
"It's a steppingstone to higher office," says Daniels bluntly.
Copeland concurs. "We all know secretary of state is a launching pad for higher office — for U.S. Senate, which approves Supreme Court nominees, for governor who has veto power over legislation. It matters a lot what her positions are."
One of Garrison's House colleagues says she is "relentlessly ambitious. She's definitely looking beyond [the secretary of state's office]."
History bears them out. Following Ted Brown's long tenure (1951-1979), every Ohio secretary of state has aspired to be governor or senator. Anthony Celebrezze Jr (1979-1983) ran for governor. Sherrod Brown (1983-1991) is currently U.S. Senator. Bob Taft (1991-1999) became governor. Ken Blackwell (1999-2007) ran for governor. And current Secretary of State Brunner is running for the Senate.
With no record of interest in voting issues, it seems like Garrison too could be aiming higher than the secretary of state's office. And then, as Copeland says, her positions on issues of reproductive choice and gay rights could matter very much.