Thoughts on the Finkbeiner Evolution
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.â€ť 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.