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By Willoughby Mariano January 9, 2013

Atlanta mayor shifts on same-sex marriage

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s recent decision to say "yes" to gay marriage took place after a long and sometimes rocky relationship with the city’s supporters of same-sex marriage.

Reed previously supported civil unions -- a position that brought him grief during the 2009 mayoral election. One news account said he drew jeers during a forum hosted by gay political groups, and his support in neighborhoods with large gay populations flagged.

The pressure intensified in May when President Barack Obama announced he supported same-sex marriage. In December, the City Council cornered Reed into taking a stand by passing a resolution echoing the president’s position. The mayor had to decide whether to sign it.

Reed responded with an enthusiastic "I do."

"Loving couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, should have the right to marry whomever they want," Reed said in a Dec. 11 news release. He also announced he would join Mayors for the Freedom to Marry.

Certainly Reed’s position has shifted. Some pundits have already labeled it a flip-flop. But we here at PolitiFact have learned that elected officials stake out their positions very carefully. Does his current stance count as a true flip?

We took a close look at his track record to find out.

First, a quick reminder about the Flip-O-Meter. It makes no value judgment. Some might see a flip as a sign of weakness or political opportunism, but it can also be the outcome of an earnest re-evaluation of the facts.

Reed spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs says the mayor’s stance is not a flip. She sent us a long list of his efforts to bring equal rights to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people.

"Mayor Reed never championed legislation or policies against marriage equality," Jacobs said in an email.

Gay rights supporters agree.  They’re a powerful group in Atlanta, which has one of the largest LGBT populations in the country. Local politicians actively vie for their vote.

Reed consistently told them that his religious views kept him from supporting same-sex marriage, but they did not recall any instance where he said he opposed it.

In fact, they give him credit for his 2004 opposition to Senate Resolution 595, which placed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the ballot.

It was a bold stand at a time when supporting LGBT rights was a much greater political risk than it is today. The resolution passed the state Senate and House with more than two-thirds majorities. The ballot measure passed with the support of more than 75 percent of Georgia voters.

"He really was a quiet player in that fight, as were many members," said state. Rep. Karla Drenner of Avondale Estates, a Reed supporter who led the fight against the amendment.

And while a vote against the ban was not a vote for same-sex marriage, the amendment’s defeat would have left the door open to it, said Jeff Graham, executive director of the LGBT rights group Georgia Equality.

"In the biggest, most public debate in Georgia, he did vote against putting an amendment on the ballot that restricted rights," Graham said.

Reed did take other positions that were supportive of gay rights. For instance, as a member of the state House of Representatives, he supported an anti-hate crimes measure that cleared the General Assembly but was ultimately struck down in court.

And for all the complaints Reed received for backing civil unions, he favored unprecedented recognition for same-sex commitments in Georgia. Civil unions arguably provide the same benefits as marriage.

This LGBT-friendly track record could lead one to think that Reed’s move from civil unions to same-sex marriage was a subtle shift.

But in Atlanta politics, it’s pivotal.

Reed’s reluctance to support same-sex marriage could have easily lost him the tight 2009 mayoral race, said Laura Douglas-Brown, editor and co-founder of The Georgia Voice, an LGBT newspaper. He won with a mere 700 votes over same-sex marriage supporter Mary Norwood.

Members of the city’s sizable LGBT voting bloc said they abandoned Reed because of his stance, and Norwood trounced him in District 6’s gay neighborhoods.  

"He felt it had hurt him, but he wasn’t going to change his position because of politics," Douglas-Brown said.

Reed’s switch was a momentous shift on a personal level as well. His statements indicate he has been grappling with his convictions for years. After Obama’s announcement, he issued a statement that said he was "still wrestling" with his "own personal beliefs on the issue of (gay) marriage."  

Our ruling:

Before supporting same-sex marriage, Reed was a consistent supporter of civil unions despite intense pressure from LGBT voters. During the 2009 race, he dug in his heels, even though it meant losing the support of this crucial voting bloc.

PolitiFact defines a Full Flop as "a major reversal of position." Reed’s change fits the bill.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Atlanta City Council, Resolution 12-R-1813, Dec. 3, 2012

Georgia Secretary of State, Senate Resolution No. 595, 2004

Georgia General Assembly, 2003-2004 Regular Session, Senate Resolution 595, accessed Jan. 7, 2013

City of Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed Announces Support for Marriage Equality, Dec. 11, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Mayor supports same-sex marriage," Dec. 12, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Mayoral hopefuls court gay vote," May 22, 2009

Southern Voice, "Atlanta mayoral candidates court gay vote," May 29, 2009

Political Insider, "Kasim Reed says he’s still ‘wrestling with my beliefs’ on gay marriage," May 10, 2012

The Georgia Voice, "Atlanta mayor sits down with gay marriage supporters, but not ready to say ‘I do’," June 27, 2012

The Georgia Voice, "An open letter to Mayor Kasim Reed on marriage equality," May 25, 2012

Email interview, Sonji Jacobs, spokeswoman, Mayor Kasim Reed, Jan. 3, 2012

Telephone interview, Jeff Graham, executive director, Georgia Equality, Jan. 2, 2012

Telephone interview, Laura Douglas-Brown, editor, The Georgia Voice, Jan. 4, 2012

Telephone interview, Karla Drenner, state House of Representatives, Jan. 4, 2012

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Atlanta mayor shifts on same-sex marriage

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