The Longest Yard

The passing of a gay civil rights bill is so close and yet . . . 

One stinking vote. On Thursday, April 21, state House Bill 1515, which would have outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodation, failed to pass the Washington State Senate by a single vote: 25-24. For the last 25 years, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) community has worked with state legislators to pass this gay civil rights bill without success. Does the future look any brighter, or will discrimination continue to be legal in Washington in the coming years?

This year, state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who has sponsored the legislation for 19 years, worked carefully with other LGBT leaders to craft a three-pronged strategy: one part grass roots (led by Equal Rights Washington, a new LGBT political organization), one part legislators (there are now four out gay state House members— state Reps. Murray, Joe McDermott, D–West Seattle, Dave Upthegrove, D–Des Moines, and Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver), and one part movers and shakers (power players from the corporate and political elite).

In past years, Murray explains, the bill suffered from a lack of grassroots support. Last year, the founding of Equal Rights Washington (ERW) filled that void (says Murray, "It was the most significant event in recent [LGBT] state history"). ERW Executive Director George Cheung says the group organized nightly phone banks in the last two months of the session that generated thousands of calls to legislators; it put TV ads on the airwaves targeting key legislators; and it made a point of having constituents meet with their legislators face-to-face in their Olympia offices. The group also enlisted the services of two lobbyists who usually worked for business groups. "That was a radical move," Murray notes. "They hired people who talk to both sides of the aisle."

Rep. Ed Murray says "all hell broke loose" over the bill.

(Laura Schmitt)

The decision to use business lobbyists dovetailed nicely with Murray's own efforts to get large corporations to back the legislation. While the uproar over Microsoft going neutral on the bill—and then switching back to support the measure after the end of the legislative session—received all the headlines this year, Murray feels the effort made by others received too little attention. He says business lobbyists for Boeing, Qwest, and other companies worked hard to persuade some Republican senators to vote in favor of the bill. This caused some real contention in Republican and business circles, according to Murray. "All hell broke loose," he says.

All of this effort did not, however, win the day. Key senators did not vote in favor of the measure. Equal Rights Washington says either the senators change their votes next year or face opposition from the organization and its allies in November 2006. Three Republican senators and one Democratic senator are on everyone's short list of politicians who face this stark choice. Just how vulnerable are they?

• Senate Minority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, is a member of the new generation of the GOP leadership in Washington state that includes state Attorney General Rob McKenna, state Senate Floor Leader LukeEsser, and failed gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi. Finkbeiner, like the others, hails from the eastside of King County, the 45th District (Kirkland, Redmond, Woodinville, Duvall), and has terrific personal skills that can distract swing voters from his conservative politics. Finkbeiner was originally elected as a Democrat to the state House and actually voted for the gay civil rights bill in the past. "There is nothing wrong with being gay. I don't think gay people should be discriminated against, but I don't think this bill is the right way to go about that," he says. Democratic senators, including Lake Forest Park's Darlene Fairley, say that Finkbeiner would lose his leadership post if he supported the bill because the majority of his fellow Republicans are more conservative on social issues than he is. Finkbeiner says, "I've taken a lot of tough votes on social issues." For example, he points out that he was the lone Republican senator to support stem-cell research in this year's vote on the matter. Even Democrats acknowledge that Finkbeiner hasn't created that much vulnerability for himself and that opposing the gay-rights bill alone probably isn't enough by itself to cost him a senate seat.

• Senate Floor Leader Luke Esser, R- Bellevue, in the nearby 48th District (Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Medina), has a more conservative voting record—and has done a lot more to trumpet it in recent years. In 2004, Esser ran for Congress and stressed his conservative credentials in a tough Republican primary against former Sheriff Dave Reichert (he was also a freelance sports columnist for Seattle Weekly). Esser says, "I am conservative, opposed to taxes, and in favor of tough-on-crime legislation." Since he believes his constituents are split about 50-50 on gay rights, it leaves him free to vote his conscience: A practicing Catholic, Esser is very concerned that a gay civil rights bill would open the door to gay marriage—something he strongly opposes. Esser has the misfortune to have an ambitious, wealthy, moderate Democratic state representative, Ross Hunter, from his district, who could conceivably give him a real challenge in 2006. Esser, however, is no slouch when it comes to campaigning. He loves to doorbell, and he has a strong combination of friendliness, dynamism, and good looks. But Esser's district is changing. Since he is a principled conservative and therefore unlikely to change with it, he will likely emerge as a top Democratic target in 2006.

• Mill Creek's Republican senator, Dave Schmidt, acknowledges that he will be faced with a vigorous Democratic electoral challenge backed by a coalition that will include gay-rights activists. "I am going to be the top one or two for the Democrats to challenge," he says. Schmidt is now the lone Republican representing the 44th District (the southwest area of Snohomish County) in the Legislature, along with two Democratic House members, Hans Dunshee and John Lovick. Schmidt and Dunshee agree that the average voter in the 44th does not care about gay rights one way or the other—but the activists in both parties do (Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed). Schmidt himself says he is sympathetic to the issue of gay civil rights but cannot vote for the bill in its current form. "The way the bill is drafted, it creates loopholes," he says. Schmidt believes that some people who are not LGBT might pretend to be in order to harass an employer with a discrimination lawsuit. ("It's a real issue," he says.) Schmidt knows the gay-rights community will organize against him: "The activists that are for the bill will come after me, but it will rally my supporters all the more." Schmidt's supporters include conservative Christians—he himself was a minister in a conservative church organization for six years. He also knows that there is a chance that Democrats could defeat him. Says Schmidt, "If they have the right candidate at the right time, a Democrat can win."

• Over on the Olympic Peninsula, Democrat Tim Sheldon of Potlach feels his own party, as well as gay activists, are out to get him. "I've touched a nerve with this vote on gay rights. That is sacred to the [Democratic] Party, although the people don't agree with them," he says. The 15-year legislative veteran has faced challenges from other Democrats before and survived them. Sheldon prides himself on being a conservative Democrat—he consistently votes against new taxes and supported Rossi for governor in 2004. He sees his opposition to gay rights as being consistent with his district's views and his own conservatism. "It's hard not to vote with your constituents on these big social issues," he says. Yet both of the other politicians representing Sheldon's 35th District (all of Mason County and parts of Kitsap, Thurston, and Grays Harbor counties), Democratic state Reps. Kathy Haigh and William Eickmeyer, voted in favor of the gay-rights bill. Sheldon may have made himself more vulnerable than in past years by taking on another job—Mason County commissioner. He holds two elected offices at the same time, and while the Legislature is part time, the county commissioner job is a full-time gig. Voters may see it as double-dipping. It's just the kind of opening that gay-rights activists can use to their advantage.

If these four are true to their word and do not change their votes, the gay-rights bill will probably fail again in 2006.

Prospects look a whole lot better in 2007, however. It's widely acknowledged that there are no vulnerable state senators who support gay rights, and the state House is expected to remain firmly in favor of the LGBT community. In addition to the four senators mentioned above, there are a couple of Republican senators opposed to gay rights who may step down—due to illness or retirement—in swing districts. If the fall elections find Equal Rights Washington as engaged as it was in 2004 when it contributed to the defeat of LGBT-rights opponent and Mercer Island state Sen. Jim Horn, the makeup of the state Senate could become more gay-friendly in 2007. And it would only take one more vote.

ghowland@seattleweekly.com

 
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