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On gay issue, Arizona may heed national outcry this time

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TUCSON — When Arizona took controversial stands in the past — refusing to create a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and enacting a tough anti-illegal immigration law — state leaders shrugged off the criticism from out of state as the meddling of outsiders.

But now, after the Legislature passed a measure to bolster the rights of business owners to refuse service to gays and others on the basis of religion, Arizona leaders seem to be listening to a national outcry and are urging the governor to veto the bill.

So what's different this time?

Political insiders and observers say the change can be attributed to a number of forces at work: a growing acceptance of gay rights sweeping the nation, the power of social media and an economic backlash unleashed by the passage of the anti-illegal immigration law that is still fresh in the minds of those in the business community.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has said she has not made a decision on the bill, SB 1062, which the GOP-dominated Legislature approved last week. But some of her longtime advisors have said they believe she will veto the measure because of the negative reaction to the bill inside and outside the state.

Barrett Marson, who heads a public relations outfit in Phoenix, recalled that an uproar arose against Arizona in the 1990s when voters rejected a referendum to create a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. But there is a significant difference between then and now.

"That was pre-Internet," Marson said.

Much of the outrage about SB 1062 spread via social media, especially Twitter. Republican leaders, such as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Arizona's U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, have taken to Twitter to urge Brewer to veto the bill.

They have joined a loud chorus on social media — including celebrities such as Judd Apatow as well as Arizona business owners and residents — that has tweeted against the measure.

The tweets opposing the legislation are so numerous they have overshadowed the few who have taken to Twitter in support of the bill. Proponents say the measure is not discriminatory but intended to protect religious freedom. "Would you force a Muslim butcher to slaughter pigs b/c you want bacon?" read one tweet.

Arizona also became a target of criticism after Brewer signed the anti-illegal immigration measure, SB 1070, into law in 2010. But the outcry then wasn't as  great as the current controversy, partly because the immigrant rights lobby wasn't as powerful as today's gay community and its supporters, Marson said.

"Certainly there was a short-term economic hit from 1070 … but there aren't many illegal immigrants who are CEOs or management of Fortune 500 companies," he said.

The "economic hit" Marson referred to was boycotts of Arizona businesses following SB 1070. Shortly after SB 1062's passage last week, businesses and companies took to the Internet, saying they still welcomed gay, lesbian and transgender customers.

Marriott, American Airlines and Apple are among the companies and businesses that have come out against the bill.

Some of the same foes of the legislation have threatened to boycott Arizona if the bill becomes law, and that possibility worries these businesses — some remembering the sting of the SB 1070 boycotts.

Matthew Benson, a former spokesman and advisor to Brewer, believes she will veto the bill because of increased opposition from these companies, especially Apple — which Brewer has worked hard to bring to the state.

Apple announced last year it would build a plant in Mesa that could bring 2,000 new jobs to the state.

"Apple … that they, of all places, came to Arizona? This is a real point of pride [for] her," Benson said. "I can't imagine she would take any action that would put at risk that kind of momentum."

The high-tech industry tends to be staffed with younger employees, Benson pointed out. "The last thing they want to do is locate to a state that is intolerant or less than welcoming to all groups or people," he said.

The outcry can be attributed to the power of the gay community and its supporters in Arizona. At the same time there is a sea change in the mainstream nationally much more in favor of gay rights than in the past, political observers said.

David Liebowitz, a political consultant in Phoenix, said the passage of SB 1062, and the negative reaction against it, reflected another fact of Arizona politics: The Legislature is "wildly out of step" with most Arizonans. Despite the state's conservative reputation, the general public is often more mainstream than its representatives, Liebowitz said.

"The LGBT community in Arizona is a rising force in politics," he said. "I've lived here for almost 20 years.… We've gone virtually from no representation to the ability to be able to attract a lot of people who have become advocates in a hurry."

Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering a bill that could affect same-sex marriage, which is not legal in Arizona.

The bill, HB 2481, would expand the definition of minister to include various officials who may preside at weddings — such as judges and justices of the peace. Such a designation would allow the officials to decline to officiate at same-sex marriages on "sincerely held religious beliefs."

The state House may vote on the measure this week.

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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