This piece was written for the October 1, 2015 issue of the Washington County Progressive, the monthly newsletter for the Washington County Democrats. Spoiler alert: Greg Walden did not play the unlikely hero of this story.
We’ve all heard the often repeated phrase by Otto von Bismarck: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” When major decisions are determined by vote trading, shady campaign contributions, and backroom deals, the old saying is spot on – and it’s easy to become disillusioned with the democratic process. Unfortunately, that seems to be the standard in national politics.
But I want to remind folks about a pretty amazing story that I believe is under-appreciated. It’s a story that says a lot about Oregon, but it takes places in Washington D.C. Given today’s political climate, it’s a pretty unbelievable story.
It stars a likely and predicable hero, our progressive champion, Senator Jeff Merkley.
But in this story, his sidekick is very unlikely. His name is Gordon Smith. Yes, the same Republican Gordon Smith that Merkley defeated by around 3% in a brutal and bruising 2008 senate election.
A long, long time ago, way back in 2013 (five years after Merkley defeated then-Senator Smith) when marriage was a right reserved for only some couples in most states, the United States Senate passed a bill called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, commonly referred to as ENDA. This bill would have made it illegal for employers to discriminate against LGBT persons in hiring and employment decisions. They passed it with a filibuster proof majority; ten Republicans joined the Senate Democratic Caucus in passing the bill.
Yes, the bill eventually died in the Republican-controlled House, but passing a progressive piece of legislation like ENDA (which included protections not just for sexual orientation, but also gender identity, at Senator Merkley’s courageous insistence) was a major feat in and of itself. Keep in mind, this is the same Congress that President Obama famously observed was “less productive” than the do-nothing Congress.
So how did Senator Merkley pull this off? As it turns out, he had an assist from his former rival.
Before the bill passed, Senator Merkley asked to meet with former Senator Smith, and they discussed how Smith could be helpful in passing ENDA. Smith then served as a liaison to a staunch conservative and fellow Mormon, Senator Orrin Hatch, assuring him that ENDA did not violate church doctrine. In the end, Hatch and nine of his colleagues voted for the bill.
In the brief coverage in the national media, the story was told as a “Mormon” story. I think it was more than that. I think it was an Oregon story. Two former rivals coming together to address a major problem is a very Oregonian thing; it harkens back to the days of Bob Straub and Tom McCall.
So what’s the lesson from this story? First, it wasn’t possible without the dogged work of Senator Jeff Merkley, who was entrusted with championing this bill by its original sponsor, the late Senator Ted Kennedy. We must elect progressive champions like Senator Merkley.
However, we don’t need a “tea party of the left” – demagogues that are unable to actually deliver results. We need people that share our core values of equal opportunity for everyone, building a strong middle class, and protecting our environment. But we also need people that can make progress towards achieving those goals.
See, there is another lesson from this story, and it’s this: Democrats can’t always do it alone.
As a Democrat, I am so proud to be a member of the only major party that truly supports and embraces the LGBTQ community. But as an LGBT person, I want America to become a place where my identity isn’t a source of political controversy. The reality is that it will take a broad coalition of people to accomplish that vision.
Earlier this summer, Senator Merkley introduced the Equality Act, a comprehensive bill that ensures full equality and full protections for the LGBT community. Most states do not have inclusive non-discrimination laws, meaning that gay and transgender people can be fired or evicted without cause. If we are truly to be a country of equal opportunity for everyone, this bill is crucial.
My hope is that once again, former Senator Smith will help Senator Merkley pass this bill in the United States Senate.
But there is another interesting twist and unique opportunity that this bill presents: I believe there are only a small handful of Republican members of the House with the clout to see this bill through the lower chamber. One of them is named Greg Walden.
Now wouldn’t that make for an amazing Oregon story?