OLYMPIA, Wash. Washington’s Democrat-dominated Legislature convened a boomtime session on Monday, surprised by sudden progress on a perennial gay rights bill.
A hot-button issue, the gay civil rights bill surfaced in the Senate. Former Senate Republican leader Bill Finkbeiner, a suburban moderate who faces a stiff re-election challenge this fall, announced that he’ll break with his caucus and vote for legislation to add gays and lesbians to the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
The bill failed by a single vote last year when Finkbeiner, a former Democrat who rose to the GOP’s highest leadership post, stuck with his more conservative colleagues. Since then, he has stepped out of leadership to return to graduate school.
“I’ve had a number of conversations over the past year that have led me to more fully understand the level of discrimination against gays and lesbians, and I now find it is both appropriate and necessary for the state to make it clear that this is not acceptable,” Finkbeiner said in a written statement issued Monday. “I don’t agree with the politicization of people’s personal lives and I think it is time to move on.”
His announcement rocked the Capitol, where the bill has been introduced and rejected each year for nearly 30 years.
The state House last year passed the bill 61-37, with six Republicans joining 55 Democrats to pass it. It failed in the Senate, where two Democarats joined 23 Republicans in defeating the measure.
Representative Ed Murray, a Democrat, one of four gay men in the House and the foremost advocate of the perennial legislation, said he is now “cautiously excited” about prospects for passage this year.
Finkbeiner, who stepped down as Senate minority leader last year, supported the bill once before when he was a House member and a Democrat.
“It’s an issue I’ve struggled with since I’ve been in the Legislature,” Finkbeiner said by telephone. “I know there are going to be some people who are disappointed. Hopefully, they understand this is an issue of conscience.”
The Faith & Freedom Network, headed by the Rev. Joseph Fuiten, said it planned a lobbying trip to the state capitol in response. It also plans to release a poll on public opposition to same-sex marriage.
Fruiten also said Finkbeiner is not representing his constituents.
“It’s time for Bill Finkbeiner to move on,” Fruiten said. “I’ll never endorse him again. He is not representing the values of the 45th District or the views of the people in the 45th District.”
Gay rights activists have vowed to challenge incumbent suburban Republcans who vote against the anti-discrimination bill this year. The major employer in Finkbeiner’s district, Microsoft, also has come out in favor of the measure, a year after being denounced for quietly dropping its support for the bill.
Murray said Finkbeiner’s change in stance was courageous.
“I think he shouild be commended by Democrats and Republicans alike for making this courageous decision, to being open to listening to people and willing to change his mind,” Murray said.
Murray said Finkbeiner told him this past weekend that he was going to change his vote.
Governor Christiane Geregoire also praised Finkbeiner’s decision.
“He recognizes the need to drive discriminatory practices out of Washington,” she said in a written statement.
While the bill will have no trouble passing the House, its supporters in the Senate will have to make sure no other lawmakers switch their votes.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said the votes in the Democratic caucus were solid, although she didn’t want to celebrate the bill’s victory just yet.
“I wait until I see the number on the boards,” she said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 13, 2006.