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The Scourge of Gay Nepotism

Another reason to allow same-sex marriage

If the most successful conservative arguments for same-sex unions (argued first in 1989 by Andrew Sullivan in these pages) centered on marriage’s ability to stem AIDS-era gay promiscuity, today’s most persuasive appeal to opponents on the right might focus on a scourge yet more threatening to our cities: gay nepotism. In Philadelphia, a same-sex couple has embroiled City Controller Alan Butkovitz in an evolving mini-scandal as he angles to run for mayor in 2015. One of the men is employed by Butkovitz as a top deputy; his partner is a political consultant who just happens to have been awarded lucrative city p.r. contracts.

If they were heterosexual, the arrangement would likely have run afoul of laws designed to prevent familial favoritism with public money. But because the couple is gay, their self-dealing is controversial, but not at all criminal. Philadelphia enacted domestic-partnership laws in 1996 and two years ago imposed nepotism rules that apply to gay couples, but only if they choose to register as “life partners,” a status that offers few legal benefits and is therefore rarely worth seeking. The Pennsylvania ethics commission, meanwhile, prevents officials from awarding contracts to “immediate family” but—given that the state offers no recognition of gay relationships—doesn’t include same-sex partners under that umbrella at all.

The 38 states that explicitly forbid same-sex unions have left open a major and durable loophole, emboldening insider dealing for an entire class of patronage hacks based solely on their sexual orientation. Perhaps those aggrieved by the accumulation of gay political power could be convinced to root for the Supreme Court to strike down gay-marriage bans, if only to enshrine a new, practical principle: equal restriction under the law.

Sasha Issenberg is the Washington correspondent for Monocle and author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.