A change of heart for Bill Finkbeiner

After nearly 30 years of attempts, the gay-rights bill may pass this year, thanks to a change of heart by 45th District Sen. Bill Finkbeiner. The House of Representatives passed the bill last year, as it has for the previous dozen years, but the measure lost in the senate by one vote, and Finkbeiner was among those who voted against it.

The House again approved the bill in mid-January this year, but whether a yes vote by Finkbeiner made a difference in the Senate was unknown at the Courier's press deadline. But Finkbeiner, a Republican whose district includes Kirkland, said he thought there was a good chance the bill would pass.

The bill would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation the same way the state's Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on race, sex and religion.

Finkbeiner said he changed his mind about the issue in the last six months after discussions with people who convinced him that there was discrimination in Washington against gays and lesbians. "They were lobbyists, not necessarily affiliated with anybody, and just plain folks and people I know," he said.

Ironically, Finkbeiner added, talks with opponents of the bill convinced him that discrimination against gays and lesbians is a real problem in the state.

Gay rights is not a strictly partisan issue, according to Finkbeiner, who noted that the bill failed numerous times when Democrats were a majority in the legislature. He sees fault on both sides of the aisle. "I honestly believe both parties have used this issue as a political football," Finkbeiner said.

But the bottom line for opponents of the bill were the arguments that the gay and lesbian lifestyle is wrong and it is therefore legitimate to discriminate against homosexuals, he said. "Those were arguments I didn't really agree with."

Finkbeiner is feeling the heat for his decision. "There's a lot of people who have expressed their disappointment with me," he said. That includes fellow Republicans, Finkbeiner said. "And I know a couple of radio-show hosts."

Also lined up against the bill again is Rev. Ken Hutcherson from the Antioch Bible Church, which meets in the Lake Washington High School. Hutcherson, who took credit last year for Microsoft's dropping of its support for the bill, lobbied against the measure in the Republican caucus this year, Finkbeiner said.

And as he did last year, the controversial preacher threatened to launch a nationwide evangelical boycott of companies such as Microsoft and Boeing who support the bill.

That brought up the possibility that the vast majority of boycott supporters would have to switch to Apple computers and stop taking most domestic flights.

But, according to news accounts, Hutcherson has changed tactics and is now calling for his supporters to buy stock in the companies that support the bill and then dump the stock on May 1.

Whether that will make a difference to the companies is debatable, but Finkbeiner said he doubted that a boycott of the companies would have made much difference anyway. He said big businesses rarely lobby the legislature on social issues, focusing instead on money matters such as unemployment insurance and tax credits.

Finkbeiner said he tends to be Libertarian on business and social issues, meaning the less government runs people's lives, the better. But supporting the gay-rights bill is a matter of principle for him. "Who people choose to love is their business, and they shouldn't be treated as second-class citizens," the senator said.

"There may be a large number of people who disagree with me, maybe a majority," Finkbeiner said of his constituents. And he concedes there may be repercussions for his stand.

"Yeah, I think politically this is probably not something that helps," Finkbeiner said. "At the end of the day, I have to cast a vote I believe is the right vote."

Rookie 45th District State Rep. and former Kirkland City Council member Larry Springer thinks Finkbeiner is doing the right thing. "I'm real pleased he decided to change his vote," Springer said.

But Springer, a Democrat, also concedes that Finkbeiner has upset some voters with his decision to support the bill. "There is clearly a group of people opposed to it in the district," said Springer. He added that he has been in contact with a number of them. "We agreed to disagree."

It's a matter of conscience for supporters of the bill, according to Springer, who voted for the measure. "Quite frankly, legislators have to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning," he said. "And I keep my mirror clean."

Gay rights is a very emotional issue for some, Finkbeiner noted, but he's trying to take the long view. "Twenty years from now, nobody is going to remember how I voted on this," he said. "But I will."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or (206) 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]