SE Valley at center of Prop. 107 fight
Unmarried couples fear benefits loss
The Southeast Valley is home to strong supporters and vocal opponents of the Protect Marriage Amendment.
If it passes Nov. 7, Proposition 107 would amend the Arizona Constitution to limit marriage to one woman and one man. It also likely would wipe out health care and other benefits that local governments, such as Tempe, extend to straight and gay unmarried couples.
Mesa is home to Arizona Families United, a group that gathered nearly 60,000 signatures to help the initiative qualify for the ballot and is part of the grassroots campaign to get Proposition 107 passed. Several prominent Southeast Valley politicians such as Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, and Rep. Ward Nichols, R-Chandler, support the initiative.
Meanwhile, labor groups such as the Tempe firefighters union, the Tempe Officers Association and the Service Employees International Union -- which represents about 800 Tempe city workers -- have joined Democratic politicians who oppose the ballot proposition. Today, the law enforcement groups and other Proposition 107 opponents plan to hold an 11:30 a.m. press conference at Tempe City Hall to speak out against the proposed amendment.
Nearly 40 Tempe city workers use the domestic partners benefits program and it covers 43 domestic partners, children and other dependents, city figures show. Phoenix, Tucson, Scottsdale and Pima County also provide domestic partner benefits. Southeast Valley municipalities such as Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert do not.
Groups on both sides of the initiative debate say the issue is critical for Arizona families.
A Mesa family on the front lines of the pro-Proposition 107 campaign anticipates that the Protect Marriage Amendment will pass.
Carol Soelberg, 58, said she has devoted her life to family. Soelberg has 13 children, she's president of Arizona United Families and she participates in a program that teaches families in Africa about abstinence and loving relationships.
The push to legalize gay marriage is an attack on what their family stands for, said Soelberg and her husband, Glade, as they saw their three youngest children off to school.
"When anything comes under attack, you want to defend what you think is right," said Glade Soelberg, 61. Although state law makes gay marriage illegal, the amendment would give Arizona the most protection from a pro-gay marriage court ruling, Carol Soelberg said. "We have been in this from the very beginning to get this off the ground."
Arizona United Families helped collect 56,000 signatures, which qualified the proposed amendment to go on the ballot. The proposition is not about benefits, said Peter Gentala, a Gilbert attorney and spokesman for the Protect Marriage Amendment.
"If you read the other side's talking points, you would think that this is the anti-benefit amendment," Gentala said. "It's not true."
On election night, the odds are in favor of the Protect Marriage amendment, supporters say.
Nearly 20 states have passed similar amendments since 1996, Gentala said.
"Arizona has always been supportive of marriage," he said.
Just few miles away, Tempe code inspector Kirk Erickson says he is the typical person who uses Tempe's domestic benefits program.
He's a married, straight guy who needed the program while he and his wife, another city employee, were engaged.
Without it, Erickson said, it would have been tough for his then-fiancée to take family leave from work so she could help Erickson's family care for his terminally ill father.
Erickson, on the SEIU bargaining team, estimated that most of the employees who use Tempe's program are unmarried straight couples.
Domestic partners benefits also help make Tempe a more inclusive workplace for gay workers and show that the city acknowledges their long-term relationships, said Tempe police officer Sgt. Dan Masters, as he walked through Tempe Beach Park with his life partner of 15 years, Robert Pargmann.
Pargmann, a Phoenix human resources professional, could lose the health care benefits that he gets from Master's health care plan if Proposition 107 passes. It would also have other impacts, Masters said.
"It would send the message that although I receive the same pay as a peer with the same tenure/rank that I have, that my 15-plus year relationship with Robert is somehow less meaningful or not worthy of the same recognition of the peer who has been married for a week and is provided with greater benefits," he said.