Why has Republican State Senator Bill Finkbeiner (Redmond) suddenly turned his back on his party’s commitment to killing the gay civil rights bill? His political reversal on Monday, the first day of this year’s legislative session, was great news for supporters of gay rights, who have watched the bill fail for almost 30 years running. There are now enough votes to pass a measure that last year died in the senate by one “no.” But Finkbeiner’s election-year decision to buck his own party begs the question: Why? (And why now?)
The senator answers with a dramatic anecdote from last year’s floor debate. The bill had passed the house and was in the senate, where Republicans, led by Finkbeiner, were poised to defeat it—but only if they held a united front. Finkbeiner, a social moderate who began his career as a Democrat and twice voted for the bill before switching parties in 1994, didn’t like what he heard on the senate floor.
“It really struck home to me that a lot of this opposition is coming because people think there is something wrong with being gay,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel comfortable with that argument at all.”
Finkbeiner delivers this anecdote to support a transformation narrative that he is pushing on the mainstream media—a narrative that suggests Finkbeiner had a recent personal revelation on gay rights. “I now find it is both appropriate and necessary for the state to make it clear that [discrimination] is not acceptable,” he said in a statement reprinted in a front-page Seattle Post-Intelligencer article on Tuesday. But the fact is Finkbeiner voted against the bill last year despite feeling then, and more than a decade ago, that homophobia was driving its opponents.
Finkbeiner explains his “no” vote by saying he was concerned the bill—which specifically bars discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, and financial transactions—might lead to frivolous lawsuits. It’s an objection favored by moderate Republicans who find the moral and religious objections distasteful, but can’t resist the political utility of torpedoing the bill. And in Finkbeiner’s case, the utility was huge: hanging on to his post as leader. But, as Finkbeiner now admits, the frivolous-lawsuit objection doesn’t make sense: Republicans never complain about similar legal protections already in place for women, racial minorities, and religious people.
Could it be, then, that Finkbeiner’s “no” vote last year was less a step in some personal transformation than an example of his willingness to sacrifice his personal beliefs in order to hold onto power? Finkbeiner, no longer the senate minority leader and currently facing a pro-gay-rights Democratic challenger in November, won’t answer—on the record. And the bill’s longtime backer, Representative Ed Murray (D-Seattle), takes the politically useful position of shielding Finkbeiner from scrutiny.
“I think it’s time to stop guessing about his motives,” Murray said. “The fact that he did this now is a courageous, courageous decision.”
Perhaps. Or it may just be a political, political decision. In which case it would prove what liberals have long suspected: Some Republicans don’t really believe in their party’s opposition to gay rights, they just go along with it because it’s useful in helping them maintain political power.