Sitting Down with the Reverend

It is a bit hard listening as our nation grapples with the role of religion in government and the right of religious institutions to define marriage, or to grant or deny marriage to me or to people I love. Right now too, debate rages about how we make change and who has to be at the table to get down this last bit of road to legal equality. Do we need anti-gay religious leaders at the nation's table or will that set us back and turn progress into hate?

I don't think we can deny that if we want equality, we have to change some minds. President Obama surely knows he has to change some minds.

On most issues like employment discrimination our country is there with us in agreement that firing people because they are gay is wrong. On marriage we are tipping in a balance. Those who have lived in states where we can marry, seem to find the ominous mystery gone. In other states the level of comfort is not yet there. The conversation has not been had.

Real change is a process. As a law maker, I know well that to pass the actual laws (which community  organizers and brave people for decades have worked to prepare the ground for,) we still need to remind Congress how ready our nation is for change. We need huge numbers of people to stand up with us on the issue of legal equality. We as a community need to be visible and to ask our straight friends to help.

Sadly, laws are a measure of progress long over due, but they alone can't protect every one of us in every small town from Burley, Idaho to Bangor Maine. We need national leaders and neighbors who stand up with us before we will get there.

To see real change, those who still hate or fear us as gay people have to see us as human and see our lives through our eyes just a little.

Getting there is slow. It takes time and serious patience to listen to another person's story and to hear it without judgement and make sure they hear a bit of your story as well. Remember that people are raised to hate. It is not spontaneous. You have to be willing to know you won't change someone's mind in one conversation, which means of course that if you are disrespectful in that first conversation you never get to come back and keep working at helping them see what it is like to have a government nullify your marriage or stand by when you are harassed or fired from a job you loved for no other reason than that you happen to be gay.

I would never say we can not be angry. In an era where our culture so seems to embrace our roles in art, science, politics, education, sports and the military, how can our government stand by while a very few work to deny us legal equality? I still get teary listening to NPR trying to comprehend how anyone could go so far as to intentionally hurt loving people who are just trying to live their lives and protect their families under the law.

We can't pretend we are not angry. How can we not be angry sometimes right now? But to get this last distance to legal equality, we as gay people will have to be very disciplined. We have to be calm and focused on the change we have to bring.

It may feel frightening, but if we want a seat at the table we will will have to sit down with people we don't agree with, with some who have not shown us respect in the past. We can not change every mind, but by calmly organizing and working hard to show what is lost to this culture without our contributions, to show the harm from the laws and amendments passed, and to accept that good people can have awful beliefs, we can I think help our country travel this last bit of road.

Ethics in Theory

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It is a wild and wonderful thing to watch new legislators contemplate the pressures they will be under to deliver for constituents and especially for lobbyists.

Wednesday in legislator school we ran through scenarios… You are flown by an industry group to a speaking engagement and offered free golf and hotel and air fare. The industry group will have legislation for you to vote on in the upcoming session. Another: As a legislator voting on a bill that deregulates your company's industry, if you knew that the bill might pass or fail by one or two votes would you disclose your conflict and go ahead and vote as the law says you should, or is this a conflict where you should not vote? Another: your neighbor asks you to write a letter to an agency to get the director to give your neighbor a contract in an open bid
process, yet you happen to serve on the Joint Finance Committee where
you oversee that agency director's budget.

Not everyone in the room agreed on the answers. I'm not sure the legislative leaders presenting the ethics portion agreed on the answers.

Personally I see lessons to be learned: 1) be very careful what you ask from someone you have power over. It takes next to nothing to imply consequence. 2) On voting, the law says we must, regardless of conflict, vote. I'd ask, should we really if the vote is so heavily divided and there are really winners and losers in this deregulation? Isn't it possible that those who are adversely impacted are not represented in the legislature and that your representing your industry to your legislative friends and colleagues in support of this legislation has skewed the objectivity of the process?

If you hang out around the legislature and our current digs in the old Ada County Courthouse even a little, or if you go to the taxpayers conference and count the industry lobbyists mixed in with the local and legislative elected officials, it feels odd. All the money moving around can get to feel normal though after awhile if you don't keep pinching yourself. I'd disagree with the the legal experts from the Attorney General's office who said that if we report the all the gifts, dinners, air tickets and hotel stays and don't promise anyone any votes, we'll be OK. I've generally returned campaign donations from corporate or business PACs. But look at the Sunshine reports someday where all we legislators get our campaign money. It is very interesting.  http://www.sos.idaho.gov/elect/Finance/2008scan.htm

We each draw our own lines and make our own claims about whether we are influenced or not. In Idaho law, esteemed Senators like Bart Davis will admit there is a difference between what is ethical and what is legal and warn us not to fall down in the court of public opinion by thinking legality is all that matters. Ethics experts like Kate Kelly have labored to create better laws. Yet the Ags office is assigned to defend that what legislators are doing by common practice is legal. As the law stands, we as legislators are supposed to decide for ourselves what is ethical and just, even if it is technically legal. 

Legislator School

In the room where the Senate State Affairs Committee meets, inside the old Ada County Courthouse, about 13 legislators sat today in the over-sized chairs and met some of the staff that will organize us, write for us, train, problem solve, track, research and draft legislation for us, pay us, monitor and audit state government for us… all so that we, farmers, ranchers, consultants, attorneys, businessmen and teachers can make state law for three months.

When I was first elected and went to legislator school in 2004, it was overwhelming then for me as a teacher, non-profit community organizer and small business owner to think of having professional staff tucked away in every corner of the statehouse ready to help me accomplish what I wanted to get done. I'd had interns, hundreds of volunteers and a few temporary employees. But this was new.Today it again felt foreign but amazing.

Dr. Moncrief from BSU came to compare legislatures around the nation for us. Now we appreciate how odd ours is (elected every two years and three legislators representing the exact same district.) I suspect we also appreciate how little staff we have compared to other states, how small our districts are, how low our pay is (less then $17,000 a year which seems low only if you've not recently worked full time for minimum wage or for a non-profit, or small farm.)

I sit at home tonight while the fire in the wood stove dies and smile thinking about New Hampshire with 400 house members compared to our 70 or Nebraska which has a non-partisan legislature. No political parties. Imagine that.