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Gay rights, and now what?

Backers of the gay rights bill (HB 2661) which cleared the Washington Legislature on Friday, after more than a decade of effort, were heavy into celebration Friday afternoon. That’s understandable enough after disappointments through the years, but two significant points should not go unnoted. Taken together, they point out the road ahead: Passage (and the certain signing) of the bill are only early steps down this path.

Bill FinkbeinerThe first point is what changed between last session, when a similar bill failed, and this one. Nothing much changed in the House, where it passed both times. Only a little changed in the Senate, where it failed by a single vote in 2005 and passed by one this time. The difference was one senator, Kirkland Republican Bill Finkbeiner, who voted against last year and reversed his stand this year.

This was expected (and already announced), which is why Senate approval was expected. Finkbeiner was the only Republican (he is a former Democrat) to vote in favor (two Democrats voted against), but he carries some significance, for two reasons. One is that last year, he was the Republican floor leader but resigned from that post between sessions; you can’t escape the speculation (though he hasn’t said so) that Finkbeiner resigned from leadership so he could cast this particular vote. And why would that be so significant? Gets to the second reason:

Finkbeiner’s district in northeastern King County is no superconservative enclave. True, the Reverend Joseph Fuiten’s Faith & Freedom Network is quoted as saying “It’s time for Bill Finkbeiner to move on. I’ll never endorse him again. He is not representing the values of the 45th District or the views of the people in the 45th District.” Fuiten does run a large megachurch with plenty of constituents in the 45th, and he is not shy about his political preferences.

45th district map

But this area is overall socially moderate to liberal, and corporations (such as Microsoft) have applied some pressure in favor of the bill. The two House seats in the 45th are split, one Democratic, one Republican. And Fuiten has lost a string of local political battles in the last few years. Finkbeiner was unopposed in 2002, but Democratic opposition has been gearing up this year. His change took some guts, but it also may have been the politically shrewd move. And it may foreshadow trends on the pivotal King County east side.

Leading to the second major thing to watch: Ballot action. There will likely be a ballot proposal before long on the subject of repeaking the gay rights law. But how much push will it have? Some communities, especially on the east side of the Cascades, will support such a measure enthusiastically, and the odds of it reaching the ballot are good.

But will it pass? Odds are against, for two reasons. One is th structure of the issue: Repealer of a measure extending civil rights, which would play horribly in the media and would likely have not near the centrist push of a measure to, say, prohibit gay marriage. Such an issue would be structurally problematic.

The second reason is suggested by Finkbeiner’s switch: The voting pivot, the suburban areas are the Puget Sound, are likely to think much as Finkbeiner did, and come to the conclusion (without the joy of the Seattle Democrats, but to the conclusion nonetheless) that rejection of the law would open more problems than it could solve. The center is not likely to embrace this happily, but it does seem to be moving in that direction.

One more factor to consider: Washington is the 17th state to pass something along this line. Is it within the upper third or so of the states for cultural liberalism? Maybe right around there; which suggests that passage is more or less reflective of the state as a whole (if not all of its component parts).

The bill’s critics would be well advised to move cautiously. Intemperence in their next moves could blow up in their faces.

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