Preparing for 2010
With all the excitement about the gains for marriage equality in other states, it is hard to remain focused on the battles we face right here in Tennessee. But the lessons of the 2008 State legislative races and the 2009 legislative session give us plenty to think about as we work for equality at home. If we get involved in the 2010 legislative races, we have an opportunity to make real gains. If we sit on the sidelines, then we can expect ten years of fighting adoption bans, the Don’t Say Gay bill, and much more.
2008 election, a close call: Most of us remember the election of 2008 as the night Barack Obama became president. In Tennessee, though, Republicans dominated State Senate races and gained a majority in the State House of Representatives. It appeared that a new era of socially conservative policy was dawning. But a funny thing happened a few months later. On January 13, all 49 House Democrats and one House Republican elected Rep. Kent Williams, a Republican from Carter County, as Speaker over the Republican Caucus’ nominee, Rep. Jason Mumpower. What resulted was an even split between Republicans and Democrats on all House committees. The maneuvers that led to the election of Speaker Williams gave the GLBT community a reprieve against negative legislation and made it possible to advance the hate crimes bill in a subcommittee. But it all could have turned out very different.
2010 is a second chance: While there will be a great deal of focus on the race for governor, we must remember that the governor has very little impact upon legislation that affects the GLBT in our state. Good bills and bad bills live and die based upon who is elected to the General Assembly. We have an opportunity to use the next year and a half to get actively involved in legislative races around Tennessee. In 2010, voters will elect the lawmakers who will decide how legislative and congressional districts are drawn as well as the fate of important legislation. If we have any hopes of beating bills like the adoption ban and advancing bills like hate crimes protections, we need to be a presence in these races.
What we can do: The opportunity we have will come and go whether we take it or not. Sitting at our computers and forwarding each other news stories about marriage equality in Iowa will not get the job done. That’s not activism. We need 100 people who are willing to volunteer in State House races around Tennessee. What our allies in the House have told us in the most direct terms is that our community would have a great deal more influence in the Legislature if we would take this step. And they don’t mean the races in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. They are asking us to get involved in the rural and suburban races outside the areas where most of our community lives. Ask yourself whether equality is worth spending five to ten Saturdays in Columbia, Hendersonville, Morristown, Martin, Crossville, Cleveland, or Brownsville calling voters and going door to door. That’s how we can add value to campaigns and build alliances that will influence policy.
It will require compromise: You can probably count on two hands the number of legislators who are on board with full equality for our community. We are going to have to face the prospect of working with some candidates who aren’t equality purists. But in the process of working for their campaigns, we can move them further along on the spectrum. That will also require getting over our stereotypes about the two major political parties and working in a nonpartisan fashion. There are conservative Democrats in the Legislature who may never support us on any bill. There are also Republicans who occasionally support us on some bills. If we want to have more influence in the Legislature, we may have to hold our noses and work for a candidate who voted for the marriage discrimination amendment in 2005 but who also voted for the hate crimes bill in 2009. We can’t eliminate candidates based on one issue. We have to look at the whole picture.
Can we do it?: Finding 100 people who will give several hours of their time for candidates who aren’t 100% with us is a tall order. It’s difficult to ask people to give so much when the benefits don’t appear to be immediate. So I don’t know whether we can do it. I do know that our only alternative is to continue lobbying a Legislature we didn’t help elect and hope that they’ll vote our way. I’m convinced we’ve got to try. If you want to make a real difference for equality, I hope you’ll be part of the effort to put GLBT advocates to work at the heart of House campaigns around the state in 2010. Your rights depend on it.