SEATTLE — When a little-known state senator became the first Republican in the Legislature to come out in favor of gay marriage, he was called a profile in courage.

It's always risky to be the first at anything. So in that sense the compliment fit.

But in a political sense, how brave was it really for Sen. Steve Litzow to back gay marriage? He represents Mercer Island — hardly a spot that is going to rise up and smite him, electorally speaking, for being pro-gay.

When it comes to political risk taking, Litzow was eclipsed the very next day.

In what I would argue is a far more perilous move — and a much bigger blow to anti-gay-marriage forces — Reagan Dunn on Monday also said he supports allowing gays and lesbians to marry.

Dunn is a King County Council member. His blood bleeds so Republican his mother named him after Ronald Reagan. And he's running statewide this year, to be attorney general — which means he is this state's highest-profile Republican, by far, to come out for gay marriage.

It also means he's out stumping for GOP money and votes not just in liberal King County, but in the reddest of red counties. Not to mention trying to rally the party's base of social and church conservatives to his cause.

"In the reality of the Republican Party, being pro-gay rights is in no way a winning stance," says Alex Hays, director of Mainstream Republicans of Washington, himself a rare GOP backer of gay rights.

"You get attacked by the right. At the same time you get no credit from the gay community, because you're still a Republican.

"The only reason to do it is if you feel something strong in your heart."

Dunn voted Monday for a resolution calling on King County to lobby the state to approve gay marriage. Two other Republicans — Jane Hague and Pete von Reichbauer — also voted yes. Then Tuesday, state Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, said she will back it as well. That makes five elected Republicans in the state who are on record supporting gay marriage.

Before last week, there were none. Before last week, our Democratic governor didn't support it either.

Dunn, whom I spoke with on Tuesday, said he doesn't feel all that courageous. He has gotten some angry messages "from some people who say they're not going to vote for me anymore, and some social conservatives who are very upset and surprised."

He felt he had to take this stance, he says, in part due to the influence of gay and lesbian friends. Plus a sea change in public attitudes. In a few years, Dunn predicted, people will look back at this controversy in disbelief.

"I think we're going to view this the same way we do that people of some races were once forced to sit in the back of the bus, or to use separate drinking fountains," he said.

Number one question he has gotten: How do you square gay marriage with Republican principles?

It's smaller, less intrusive government, he said.

"Like with abortion, I kind of take a libertarian perspective — that it ought to be a choice of the individual and less about the government," he said.

He reminds me of his mother, the late Eastside Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn. She made that same case to her GOP colleagues about abortion rights. They didn't listen -- in fact they pummeled her for it in her failed bid to become the first female House majority leader back in 1998.

Will the son meet the same fate? He's considered one of the GOP's few rising stars here. Can that still be true now that he's out and proud pro-gay?

I hope so. Dunn is right that gay marriage is inevitable. Times are changing. Maybe his party finally will, too.

Danny Westneat's columns appear in the Seattle Times. He can be reached by email at dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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