Sunday, June 7, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Once the governor’s veto of the domestic partnership bill was overridden in the Senate, observers assumed that the legislation would easily make it out of the Assembly — even though the bill had been approved originally without enough votes to override.
No one doubted that Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley would find the additional two votes she needed.
Legislative observers say Buckley, in her two sessions as speaker, has been able to control her Democratic caucus firmly. Rarely did Democrats go rogue, and almost never when it came to issues that Buckley cared about.
Buckley is not above playing hardball. She can be dismissive with those she doesn’t agree with and come off as imperious with those who don’t come prepared.
But caucus members say she has built loyalty. And when it came time to vote on the domestic partnership bill, that loyalty paid off.
With a liberal base already sore for what they saw as a too-modest tax increase and $1 billion in cuts in the budget, failure of the domestic partnership bill in the Assembly could have delivered a blow to her chances of becoming governor.
The key vote in the Assembly was Jerry Claborn, a Democrat from Las Vegas who is a retired operating engineer serving in his last term. Claborn had missed the first vote on the bill — he was with his ill wife in Las Vegas — and initially said he wouldn’t vote to override the governor’s veto.
“I wasn’t going to support this bill at all,” he said. He expressed concerns that domestic partnerships would trump last wills when it came to inheritance, he said.
“I want to save my legacy for my children. I want to make sure they get what I have, and it doesn’t go to my wife’s domestic partner,” he said. “I’ve been married for 40 years, so I guess it won’t happen to me. But what about other people?”
Over the final three days of the session, Buckley repeatedly talked to him. She brought in the Legislature’s top lawyer to try to ease his legal concerns, as well as Claborn’s friend Assemblywoman Kathy McClain.
Still, he hesitated.
“I could count where the vote was,” Claborn said. “The simple fact was that I knew I was the last swing vote on the thing. I could kill it all for everybody.”
When the Senate overrode the governor’s veto, Buckley was watching the vote on television in her office. She turned to lawmakers and said, “Is it time for me to get Jerry?”
Afterward, he remembered one of the last conversations he had with Buckley.
“We got to talking real serious like,” he said. “She said a couple words that stuck with me. ‘Jerry, a lot of people have been waiting for this day, waiting for a long, long time for something like this to happen.’ ”
In the end, he still has concerns about the bill. But, he said, he has no regrets about his vote.
“I knew we needed this bill, we Democrats did. I have two families. There’s my family with my wife and children. Then there’s the family I’ve had for the past 12 years, Assembly Democrats. I didn’t want to let them down.
“I did it for the simple fact of the love of my Democratic friends and Ms. Buckley.”