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Monday, January 9, 2006

Thoughts on the Finkbeiner Evolution

Posted by on January 9 at 16:45 PM

So Republican State Senator Bill Finkbeiner is now in favor of gay civil rights. It’s big political news, and I’m going to be writing about it for the next issue of The Stranger. But here are some first thoughts:

A Republican who repudiates his party’s stand against gay equality is such a rare creature that he deserves close scrutiny. And with Finkbeiner there are two especially fascinating veins of inquiry to explore: His evolution, and his motivation.

How did he evolve from a Democrat who voted for gay civil rights into a Republican who voted against gay civil rights, and then today into a Republican who plans to vote against his party and in favor of gay civil rights? And: What, exactly, motivated him to change his mind now?

I just got off the phone with Finkbeiner, and after a long and interesting discussion I can’t say I’ve definitively answered these two questions. (But one can see how Finkbeiner, who is up for reelection this November, might think it is in his interest to keep his evolution and motivations a bit mysterious.)

Here’s how Finkbeiner explained it all to me:

He voted for the gay civil rights bill twice back when he was a Democratic state representative because he felt equal treatment of gays and lesbians was a social justice issue. And even after switching his party affiliation and becoming a Republican in 1994, he still decided to cast a procedural vote supporting the gay civil rights bill; he might have switched parties, but he still felt equal treatment of homosexuals was a social justice issue.

Then, last year, when he was serving as the Republicans' leader in the state senate, he voted against the bill because, he told me, he had come to believe the bill might be bad for business. He thought that protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination in the workplace (and in housing and financial transactions) might encourage frivolous lawsuits, which might be bad for the economy.

Finkbeiner's libertarianism on business issues, he was suggesting, had come to trump his libertarianism on social issues. (The bill was ultimately defeated, by one vote, in the senate.)

I told him that this argument, a familiar one from moderate conservatives who feel a political need to vote against gay civil rights but can't stomach the religious rhetoric that usually accompanies such opposition, had always struck me as strained. In fact, so strained I always figured it must be disingenuous.

If there is really concern among Republicans that protecting minority groups from discrimination in the workplace leads to frivolous lawsuits, and therefore an unacceptable drag on free enterprise, then why aren't Republicans calling for the repeal of workplace discrimination protections already in place in Washington State for women, racial minorities, and religious people? They're not, are they?

Rather, they seem to believe that protecting people from discrimination is only bad for business when it's gays who are being protected. Which is totally illogical, since gays don't exactly make up the percentage of the workforce that is made up by women, or racial minorities, or even religious people.

I then asked Finkbeiner whether, in truth, his evolution from supporter into opponent of the gay civil rights bill (or as his critics call it, his flip-flopping) didn't actually have more to do with his being the leader of the Republican caucus in the senate last year. (The rumor at the time was that if Finkbeiner voted against his party and for gay civil rights he would be removed from his leadership post.)

Finkbeiner's response? He wouldn't give me an on-the-record response.

Which gets right back to the questions of motivation and evolution. Finkbeiner is presenting his change of heart as a classic arc, one of a transformation from discomfort and intolerance to acceptance: "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," he said in a statement released today. "And I now find it is both appropriate and necessary for the state to make it clear that this is not acceptable... Real people are affected by this issue: our friends, our co-workers, our family members, our neighbors. I don't agree with the politicization of people's personal lives and I think it is time to move on.” Message: I care about gay people—now more than last year.

Message number two: I no longer think that the (bogus) fear of frivolous lawsuits justifies voting against protecting the rights of gay people in Washington.

Well, with all due respect to the senator from Kirkland, this doesn't make a lot of sense. By Finbeiner's own account, he didn't just in the past year come to think that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was unacceptable. He thought this back when he was a Democrat, back when he twice voted for protecting gay civil rights. He even thought this, for a time, when he was a Republican. He thought it right up until he became Senate Minority Leader.

So it's very hard to buy the narrative of recent personal transformation that Finkbeiner is offering, the one that casts him as being motivated to vote for the gay civil rights bill this year by a dawning realization of its essential justice. What makes more sense is that he was motivated in voting against the bill last year by a will to power—a drive to hold onto his leadership post.

And if you buy this, then the choice for Finkbeiner last year was not as The Seattle Times sees it:

Supporters had speculated Finkbeiner voted against the bill last year because he was the Senate Republican leader and had to accomodate more-conservative members of his caucus. And because Finkbeiner stepped down as leader in November, he's now free to vote his beliefs.

In reality, Finkbeiner has always been free to vote his beliefs. He was just as free last year as he is this year. He chose not to last year, not in order to "accommodate his caucus," but because he would lose power if he didn't. He compromised his principles when threatened with loss of power.

Rep. Ed Murray (D-Seattle), who has spent his career in the legislature trying to get the gay civil rights bill passed, told me he sees Finkbeiner's announcement today as "a courageous, courageous decision."

He was referring to Finkbeiner's willingness to risk the wrath of his own party in an election year, which is certainly something. But when I asked Murray why Finkbeiner didn't make this courageous decision last year, he said:

"I suspect that he looked at the breadth of issues his district cared about, and decided that this wasn't the issue that he was going to fall on his sword about, and give up his leadership position."

Finkbeiner will be getting a lot of praise from liberals and gay rights activists for his recent change of heart—or, perhaps more accurately, his return to his earlier convictions. And it's certainly good news for gay rights.

But let's be clear: When one asks whether Finkbeiner was motivated, over the course of his evolution on this issue, primarily by his principles or by politics, the answer seems clear: Politics.

CommentsRSS icon

Let's not look this gift horse too closely in its mouth. Yeah, so he's trying to spin his failure last year and his decision this year....what do you expect from a politician? I personally don't care what he says his reasons are for doing what he did as long as he sticks to his decision this time around. Even a hypocrite can vote the way we need...

I'm with Ed Murray on this one -- I think Finkbeiner deserves a lot of credit from Democrats for standing up for his convictions on this issue, given that it requires him to buck his party in such a high profile way. I can only imagine the kind of hate mail he's getting right now from the hard right Republican base.
Now, is Finkbeiner bullshitting about his motives in opposing the bill last year, and his motives in switching his position last year? Sure he is, but so what? When politicians act politically, that's not unusual, or particularly noteworthy. It was not in the least bit surprising that Finkbeiner decided last year that holding on to his leadership position was more important than voting for a bill that moderate, pro-business Republicans probably see as a sideshow distraction from their primary agenda. In other words, as an act of nefarious political positioning, it struck me as penny ante.
But when politicians take a stand that arguably goes against their political interests -- as Finkbeiner did in this case -- that is a big deal. So I commend him for it. Thank you, Bill Finkbeiner, for standing up for what is right. On the other hand, now that he has taken this stand based on conscience, which likely means he will never be able to run for and win higher office as a Republican, I would urge him to go back to thinking politically for a moment. And the smart political play for Finkbeiner is to switch parties (again) and run as Dem in his increasingly Democratic district. Our side would welcome him with open arms. Meanwhile, his rabid Republican base will hate him forever. So how about it, Bill?

P.S. Bill, if you do switch, any interest in taking on Reichert? Could be kind of a fun matchup...

Procedural note to Sandeep: if the Finkster lives in Kirkland, then he probably lives in Jay Inslee's 1st Congressional District.

As for switching parties: Go for it! I'm a yellowdog Dem, and I'd take him back in a second.

Sandeep! It's so nice to hear you come down—for once!—on the side of the pro-homosexual lobby!

This is great news. Ed Murray and all the hardcore supporters who hung in there all these years deserve some big cheers.

This has to be one of the most determined long term projects in State political history.

But - not over yet. Remeber the year, Ed know the exact time, the Catholic Bishops flipped vioes - phone calls to the floor during debate, no less. Deccio from Yakima valley changed, for one.

Cal Anderson is cheering from heaven - setting aside the projects under way for a moment.

Should be a big party when the vote comes in. Congrats will be endless.

I think Fink...... is on his own. And in trouble. There will be lots of seepage to local races this fall from all the corruption in the air. R's should all be running scared.

Next, the national bill.

Regards. GB

I'd like to also raise a glass to Sandeep and The Stranger for the way they pushed the Microsoft/1515 story. It would be foolish to believe that the resulting firestorm didn't ultimately influence Finkbeiner's decision.

I agree with much I have read here, and I think last years vote by Bill coupled with his reelection challenge have created an easy moment for him to vote his conscience (and I don't buy that his opinion ever changed on this bill) and bolt from his caucus without retribution. The fact is that loosing his seat will only move the R's farther from the majority. And in regard to the Catholic church killing the senate vote back when Cal was in the senate: They were not just on the phone but were in the senate wings. The tactic they used of last minute pressure drove Sen Marilyn Rassmussen to tears as she yielded to the delegation and switched her vote.
Three cheers for Fink, but the real personal story here was Marilyn's support for the bill last year which is what brought the bill to a vote and set the stage for this years passage of the bill.

Oh my! A politician ... politically motivated! I shudder at the implications.

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