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Straight couple fights gay-marriage ban

By BETH REINHARD, breinhard@miamiherald.com

The face of the opposition to a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is an old, unmarried Sunrise couple.

Wayne Rauen and Helene Milman, together for 23 years, worry that the amendment could wipe out their domestic partner benefits they get under Broward County law.

They told their story Tuesday in support of Florida Red and Blue, a new statewide group that aims to beat back the proposed amendment. By focusing on the ban's potential repercussions for live-in partners -- instead of on the polarizing question of gay marriage -- opponents are trying to duplicate their success last year in Arizona, the first state to reject a same-sex marriage ban.

Putting forward sympathetic spokespeople like Rauen and Milman is only part of the strategy. With the leadership of veteran Republican and Democratic fundraisers, Florida Red and Blue says it raised more than $1 million in just two months.

If the brisk fundraising pace continues, expect to see ads like the ones in Arizona that depicted heterosexual couples, young and old -- couples like Rauen and Milman.

''This is not just a gay marriage amendment,'' said Stephen Gaskill, spokesman for the new group based in North Miami, Florida Red and Blue. ``It's easy to focus on that because that's what is controversial, but it goes way beyond that.''

Even the group's name reflects a careful strategy not to marginalize itself as a gay-oriented group, but to reflect a bi-partisan coalition. Perhaps even more powerful than its aggressive fundraising and savvy marketing: a new, 60 percent hurdle for passing a constitutional amendment in Florida.

The proposed referendum reads: ''Inasmuch as a marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.'' Proponents want it to appear on the November 2008 ballot.

Opponents argue the second half of the amendment could strike down domestic partnership ordinances in Broward County, Miami Beach, Key West and West Palm Beach. The local ordinances allow both homosexual and heterosexual couples to receive certain advantages typically given to spouses, including hospital visitation rights and health insurance.

During a conference call with reporters, Rauen said his domestic partnership registration allowed him to comfort Milman in the hospital before she was wheeled in for breast cancer surgery.

''Had there been no domestic partnership program, she would have to lay there waiting to go into surgery by herself, and that's just not right,'' he said. ``My family calls us a package. It doesn't say we're a marriage, but we're a package.''

But the leader of the group trying to put the amendment on the ballot, Orlando lawyer John Stemberger, contended that it would not apply to domestic partnerships. Florida4Marriage says it needs 18,000 more signatures to get on the ballot.

''The only way they can win is to be deceptive,'' Stemberger said. ``They can't argue gay marriage because they know they will lose.''

Florida4Marriage collected $5,700 in the last three months and appears to be broke. It has collected $438,612 and spent $452,893 since January 2005, according to a report posted on the Florida Division of Elections website.

Stemberger said the group was not in debt and that it received a $25,000 check after it filed the report. He said he wasn't concerned about being outraised more than one year before the election.

Most of the money collected by Florida4Marriage group so far -- $300,000 -- came from the Republican Party of Florida before Charlie Crist was elected governor in November. On Tuesday, Crist reiterated his decision that the GOP should not continue to bankroll the effort.

''I think the funds of the party can be better utilized, like winning elections,'' said Crist, who added that he would not campaign against the amendment.

Heading up Florida Red and Blue are two veteran political fundraisers. The group's chairman is Jon Kislak, a Miami Lakes banker and venture capitalist who served as a top Republican fundraiser for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and former U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw. The group's finance chairman, Bob Farmer, served as national treasurer for the Democratic presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Bill Clinton.

Of the $1 million raised so far, Farmer said: ``To say this is a remarkable achievement would be an understatement. We don't have a candidate, we're not fully staffed, and most people weren't even aware of the threat that this amendment poses.''

The group's detailed fundraising report was not available Tuesday evening. Florida Red and Blue said it has 375 donors, with one-quarter of its money coming from Palm Beach philanthropist Don Burns.

Miami Herald staff writers Evan S. Benn and Gary Fineout contributed to this report.


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