Gay-rights bill picks up key vote in state Senate
Democrats seemingly have the votes to pass gay-rights legislation — after more than 20 years of trying — because of Republican...
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — Democrats seemingly have the votes to pass gay-rights legislation — after more than 20 years of trying — because of Republican Sen. Bill Finkbeiner's decision Monday to support the measure.
Yet key Democrats say the bill's approval isn't a lock.
"As soon as you gain somebody, you start to lose somebody else," said Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, a gay lawmaker and longtime sponsor of the legislation. "Once again, when this makes it to the Senate floor, we won't know whether we absolutely have the votes until the votes are taken."
Democrats also say a state Supreme Court decision on gay marriage that could come any time might complicate the issue.
Finkbeiner, of Kirkland, ended weeks of speculation by announcing he would support the legislation, after casting a key vote against it last year.
"I just came to the conclusion that this was the right vote to take on this issue," Finkbeiner said in an interview Monday, the opening day of this year's legislative session.
For many people the debate boils down to "is it OK to be gay in Washington state?" he said. "I really believe our Legislature should in no way contradict the message that people can decide who they are going to love."
State law now bans discrimination by race, sex, religion, marital status and other categories. The bill would add sexual orientation to that list. Gov. Christine Gregoire plans to introduce the legislation today in the House.
The measure has repeatedly passed the House only to be stopped by Republicans in the Senate. It died by one vote on the Senate floor last year. Democrats expect it to pass the House again this year.
Finkbeiner's commitment theoretically gives supporters the votes they need to get past a decades-long blockade of the legislation by Senate Republicans.
Democrats hold a 26-to-23 majority in the Senate. Conservative Democratic Sens. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, Mason County, have sided with Republicans on the bill, giving opponents a one-vote edge. That's why Finkbeiner's vote seemingly clinches the matter for Democrats.
The biggest problem may be getting the bill to the Senate floor for a vote, said Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle, a key negotiator in the Senate last year for the legislation.
"It's always dicey with an issue of that magnitude," Poulsen said. "The procedural votes will be the tough part this year. Just because somebody supported it last year doesn't mean they'll be there this year."
Last session, Sheldon sided with his party to get the bill to the floor but then voted against it when it came up for final passage. Sheldon on Monday wouldn't comment on whether he'd side with his party again to get the bill to the floor.
Poulsen noted that "the culture in the Senate is that everyone is expected to vote their conscience on the bill, but when it comes to procedural matters you're expected to stay with your caucus."
That has some wondering if Finkbeiner will vote with Democrats to bring the legislation to a floor vote. Finkbeiner wouldn't comment other than to say, "I don't think it will be an issue."
Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, who replaced Finkbeiner as the Senate GOP leader last year, would not talk to reporters Monday. His office referred calls to Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, Thurston County, a staunch opponent of the gay-rights bill.
Swecker said he's still opposed to the legislation but expects the bill will make it to the floor for a vote this session. "My sense is the caucus is not optimistic about preventing it from coming up for a vote," he said.
A potential wild card in the debate is a state Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage. Nineteen gay and lesbian couples sued the state last spring over the right to marry and are awaiting a decision from the court. The couples maintain that the state's Defense of Marriage Act, passed by the state Legislature in 1998, is unconstitutional.
If the court rules soon, that could make the gay-rights legislation even more controversial and emotional.
Senate Republicans in the past have stated they're opposed to the gay-rights bill in part because they see it as a step toward gay marriage. Democrats disagree, saying the two issues are not linked.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she expects the bill to pass this session. "I've felt all along that this year would be a good year to pass the bill. I think this gives us a good sense that is going to happen," she said of Finkbeiner's support.
Proponents of the gay-rights measure have long seen Finkbeiner as the key Republican vote needed to pass the bill because he voted twice for gay-rights legislation when he served in the House as a Democrat. Finkbeiner is also considered a moderate in his party.
Supporters of gay rights had speculated Finkbeiner voted against the bill last year because he was the Senate Republican leader and had to accommodate more-conservative members of his caucus. And because Finkbeiner stepped down as leader in November, he's now free to vote his beliefs.
Finkbeiner wouldn't comment on the matter Monday.
Murray said he's "tired of people questioning Sen. Finkbeiner's motives. I don't think his motives are political. I don't think his motives are anything but him trying to do what he thinks is right, morally and by his conscience."
Finkbeiner could face political consequences, however.
"I've endorsed him in the past but won't be endorsing him in the new election. I'll be looking for a primary opponent," said the Rev. Joseph Fuiten, pastor of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church in Bothell.
Fuiten is chairman of the Faith and Freedom Network, which opposes the gay-rights measure. He sees it as a steppingstone to gay marriage. "I just find this really unfortunate," Fuiten said. "He's abandoning the views of his constituents."
However, if Finkbeiner votes in favor of the legislation, he also may gain new political support.
"We applaud Sen. Finkbeiner's courage in taking a stance to do the right thing," said Equal Rights Washington Executive Director Fran Dunaway. "We will certainly support any legislator who comes out in favor of protecting Washingtonians from discrimination."
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or email@example.com. Seattle Times reporter Lornet Turnbull contributed to this story.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.