Finkbeiner may hold key for passing gay-rights bill
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIA — Gay-rights legislation has been debated so often, and for so long, that supporters can tell you with seeming certainty how every lawmaker will vote next year — except for Republican Sen. Bill Finkbeiner.
Democrats, who excoriated him for defeating the bill when it died by one vote on the Senate floor in April, are now banking on Finkbeiner as its savior when the measure is reintroduced this coming legislative session. The Legislature convenes Jan. 9 for a 60-day session.
"The X factor will be Sen. Finkbeiner," said state Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle, a key negotiator in the Senate last year for the bill, which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Given that 22 other Senate Republicans also voted against the measure in April, why the tizzy over Finkbeiner?
Supporters of the bill see him as the weakest link in what's been an unwavering Senate GOP blockade of the measure since it was first introduced more than 20 years ago.
Gays-rights legislation has passed the House several times in the past and is expected to do so again this coming session, said Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, longtime sponsor of the bill. That would throw the focus once more on the Senate. Democrats hold a slimmer majority in that chamber, and they have some conservative members who've sided with Republicans on the issue.
Finkbeiner voted twice for gay-rights legislation when he served in the House as a Democrat. He even defended his vote back in 1994, when he switched parties and ran for the Senate as a Republican.
"This bill, in my opinion, did not give special rights," Finkbeiner said at a candidate forum in Woodinville 11 years ago.
"It said Washington state would not tolerate discrimination. ... This is a debate that is going to divide families and neighbors, and it detracts from other important business that we should be conducting in Olympia, like regulatory reform and controlling state spending."
Finkbeiner is also considered a moderate in his party. And his 45th District, which includes rural parts of King County as well as more-urban areas like Redmond and Kirkland, is not a Republican stronghold.
Although 53 percent of his district's voters went for GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi in the 2004 election, an equal proportion voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
And this year, more than 60 percent of voters in the district opposed Initiative 912, which would have repealed a 9.5-cent gas-tax increase. The initiative was endorsed by the state Republican Party. Finkbeiner had voted for the gas tax in the Legislature.
Political strategists speculate Finkbeiner voted against the gay-rights legislation this past session because he was the Senate Republican leader and had to cater to more-conservative members of his caucus.
It was the first time the volatile and emotional measure had ever made it to a floor vote in the Senate. State law now bans discrimination by race, sex, religion, national origin, marital status and other categories. The bill would add sexual orientation to that list.
The thinking goes that because Finkbeiner stepped down as leader last month, citing the need to spend more time at work and with his family, he's now free to vote his beliefs.
Another potential factor is that Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, is on the record as supporting the gay-rights bill. The company was neutral on the measure last session, a decision that snowballed into a major flap.
Finkbeiner only adds fuel to the speculation, by saying he's genuinely conflicted and doesn't know how he'll vote. "I've never felt like it was a no-brainer," he said recently. "I'll have to struggle with that one again this year."
By comparison, two other senators from so-called "swing districts" — areas known to elect both Democrats and Republicans — are quick to say their vote won't change if the bill makes it to the floor.
"Most likely I will be voting no," said Sen. Dave Schmidt, R-Mill Creek. Sen. Luke Esser, R-Bellevue, said he's a definite no vote.
And Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, who replaced Finkbeiner as the Senate GOP leader, said his caucus will oppose any attempt to bring a gay-rights bill to the floor for a vote.
With an election year coming up, Poulsen, the senator from Seattle, said Democrats "hope that Sen. Finkbeiner not only sees the light but feels the heat approaching his re-election campaign and that in the end he'll be a supporter and that will be the one vote we need to push it over the top," Poulsen said.
There's also an expectation that if he votes yes, some other Republicans might follow.
Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, who voted for the gay-rights bill last year, said the vote's a tough call politically for Finkbeiner.
A yes vote would tick off his conservative base, which is still a power to be reckoned with. But a no vote could mobilize Democratic supporters to come up with a well-funded candidate to challenge Finkbeiner, Jarrett said.
That could put him in a predicament similar to what former Republican state Sen. Jim Horn of Mercer Island faced in 2004 when a strong coalition of Democratic supporters targeted Horn in part because of his views on transportation and education. Horn was chairman of the Senate transportation committee at the time, and he lost his seat to Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island.
"They went out and decided they were going to recruit a decent candidate, the first time Jim's had a tough candidate in a long time. All of the sudden the energy was there from a number of different angles to go after Jim. It was almost piling on at that point," Jarrett said.
State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said Finkbeiner would be vulnerable next year if he votes against the gay-rights bill.
"If he can't support an extension of civil rights to gays and lesbians, he should be defeated in his district," Berendt said. It's "an issue that will move not hundreds, but thousands of voters into the Democrat's column. This is just a fundamental issue of fairness."
Chris Vance, chairman of the state Republican Party, sees it differently.
"Suburban voters are generally very tolerant and socially moderate, but not necessarily on this issue," he said. "The bottom line is that I don't think any Republican hurts themselves by opposing that legislation."
No matter what Finkbeiner does, he'll be targeted by Democrats, Vance said.
In the end, a vote on gay rights should be based on what you believe, Jarrett said. In a case like Finkbeiner's, you have to "come at it from the standpoint that it's the right thing to do and this is where you want to be," he said.
"If you come from the standpoint of 'where's my district on this,' I think it's a really tough decision."
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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