SERENA CRUZ “We’re not elected to be impartial. Judges are impartial. We’re elected to get work done.” David Plechl
Last Wednesday morning, City Councilperson Serena Cruz and her three female counterparts stood at a hastily convened press conference. Joined by the county attorney, they announced perhaps the most controversial policy change in Multnomah County history: Starting at 10 am that morning, the county would begin handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. To do otherwise, explained the commissioners, would violate the state constitution's equal protection clauses. Since then, Cruz has been both heralded as a civil rights hero and vilified for kidnapping and destroying the sanctity of marriage. A week after the announcement, the Mercury sat down with Cruz in her office.

How have you been surviving since the news broke?

It's been an amazing week. There's not a whole lot of in-between. I've received a whole lot of love--just go downstairs to the couples standing in line. On the other side, there has been a lot of hate. There are obviously some people who are unhappy. But I have no doubt we did the right thing.

The Oregonian has published some stern editorials, calling the process "back-room dealing" and claiming you locked the public out of the process. Response?

It's important that we clear up any real concerns that exist with the process. Our process was perfectly legal. Our chair [Diane Linn] is the chair of the county. It is her job to apply interpretations of the law. In this instance, she had the support [of the County Board]. That support was never gathered in an illegal manner.

I think it's easy to dispense with the concerns about the process and get to the core issue here, which is that the Oregon constitution doesn't allow discrimination against certain people or groups of people. Our attorney told us that our choice was to either deny all couples marriage licenses so that we're not favoring one group over another--or to give licenses to all.

Given that the argument about process has become a distraction, would you pursue your path any differently?

There is one place where I feel like things went wrong, and that's with Commissioner (Lonnie) Roberts. I wish that I had communicated with him before he heard it from anyone else. As a colleague, he deserved to hear it from a colleague, and truly to have a chance to ask our attorney the questions that he had. Instead, there were leaks, and he heard it from other people before he heard it from us. That's just plain wrong.

Will that affect your working relationship with Commissioner Roberts?

No. I've had the opportunity to talk with him and I really feel like we've cleared the air. He understands there are times when colleagues work together and there are times when others work together. That's just a matter of how things get done.

Was there a valuable opportunity for a public discussion that was missed?

It's hard for me to figure out where in the process that could have happened. We had information that we were going to be sued if we didn't pursue a legal analysis. When Commissioner Naito and I asked our attorney for an opinion, should we have instead said to the public, "We're contemplating asking our attorney for an opinion on same-sex marriage, do you agree that we should ask our attorney?" That doesn't really make sense.

What was your first thought when the idea of same-sex marriages was presented to you?

When Basic Rights Oregon came to us, they said they had done a review on the legal scenarios. Their belief was that we were required to give licenses. For me, it was a great moment. I was happy. I was excited. It was thrilling to think we had the power to enact something that was just and the right thing to do--and that we were in fact required to do.

Do you feel like a trendsetter?

That's not what this was about. But I believe the interpretation our attorney made of the constitution is the same constitution that applies to counties across the state. They are subject to the same rules.

How you see this unfolding?

As this issue becomes more real for everyone, the easier it's going to become to have broad acceptance for same-sex marriage. I think that's inevitable. If not now--even if we're not upheld in the courts--it is ultimately going to happen.

I think that history doesn't allow discrimination to continue for that long without ultimately breaking up. I'm still in shock that it wasn't until 1967 when interracial marriages were allowed in the United States. I mean, that's the year I was born! It just seems insane that it's been such a short amount of time. Of course, I still think I'm young.

But this is not winning the war. This is only one step forward, right?

This is one battle in the whole effort. I know there are different opinions on whether this is the best strategy. But in Multnomah County we didn't choose this strategy--people demanded it. How long will we let people demand their rights before we actually give it to them?