Bill Finkbeiner, the Kirkland- Redmond area legislator who serves as minority leader in the Washington State Senate, is not your typical Bush-era Republican. Yes, like Bush, he's a fairly standard-issue GOP pol in his pro-business, anti-tax, corporate-class worldview. But he breaks ranks with his conservative 23-member senate Republican caucus on other matters: Openly pro-choice, he's a self-proclaimed "social moderate" who was first elected to the legislature as a Democrat, and he continues to be well liked by many colleagues across the aisle.

He even maintains the closest of ties to liberals. His wife, Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, is a former environmental lobbyist who recently authored a book on reinvigorating the feminist movement. In short, he's the kind of politician who embodies the supposed new wave of the state Republican Party: youthful (he's in his mid-30s), dynamic, smooth, broad-minded, and even vaguely hip in a safely suburban sort of way.

All of which explains why Finkbeiner found himself in a no-win situation with respect to House Bill 1515, the gay anti-discrimination bill. If he voted his conscience, he would have alienated his anti-gay caucus and quite possibly lost his leadership post. If he voted against the bill, however, he ran the risk of alienating his moderate-to-liberal district (and subverting his all-important New Republican image, which has some fans clamoring for him to run for higher office).

"It's the kind of issue that could be made into a political issue," says Rep. Larry Springer, a moderate house Democrat from Finkbeiner's 45th legislative district. While "a cadre of people very much oppose the bill" in the district, "the majority of people support gay rights," he says. Finkbeiner's constituents are certainly not social conservatives. According to a 2002 poll done for Washington's House Democratic Campaign Committee, 72 percent of voters are pro-choice in the 45th.

Luckily for Finkbeiner--but not for the state's gay population--it now looks like he will not have to vote at all. As they did last year, Republicans, joined by two conservative Democrats, last week went to extraordinary lengths to kill the bill on a procedural motion before it came to a no-fudging-allowed, up-or-down vote in the senate.

Democrats are fuming. "Why is it a [Republican] caucus priority? This is the big stand they want to make as a party? It's distressing," says Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. She adds, "What's the rationale for not having a vote?"

Other Olympia Democrats answer her question by contending that the move was concocted in part to protect Finkbeiner from having to vote on the measure.

In 2004, when Democrats mustered enough support in the last days of the session to pass the bill, senate Republicans, led by Finkbeiner, abruptly adjourned early to stave off a vote, despite the collateral damage the maneuver inflicted, sending dozens of unrelated bills to an untimely death. Last week, Republicans were more elegant in their machinations, abruptly springing an unexpected procedural vote that sent the bill back to a hostile committee where it is likely to once again die.

Senator Brian Weinstein, a freshman Democrat from the Eastside, put the onus squarely on Finkbeiner. "Finkbeiner is a moderate Republican fronting for a right-wing caucus. His district is a moderate to socially liberal area. This is a vote he did not want to take," he says. When he runs for reelection in 2006, Weinstein predicts, "the Democrat running against him will say he's pro-discrimination, and he'll say, 'How can you say that? I never voted on it on the floor.'"

Finkbeiner did not return a call seeking comment. Luke Esser, the senate Republican floor leader who engineered the procedural motion that appears to have killed the bill, says he did it because he sees the bill as another step down the slippery slope to gay marriage. Asked about Finkbeiner's situation, Esser says he can't speak for his colleague, but added, "People may take procedural votes that might not necessarily represent their feelings about the merits of legislation."

That kind of issue avoidance doesn't sit well with supporters of the bill. "He's hiding behind a procedural move," says George Cheung, executive director of Equal Rights Washington. "He knows his constituents are fair-minded and against discrimination." ERW has begun a cable advertising campaign pressuring Finkbeiner and five other senate Republican moderates and conservative Democrats to support the bill. The group, which played a significant role in Weinstein's victory over conservative Republican Jim Horn last November, will consider campaigning against Finkbeiner next year if 1515 does not pass.

sandeep@thestranger.com

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