February 12, 2012 in City

Spin Control: Perhaps budget is more pressing, but marriage debate was good

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – Republican leaders in the Legislature have been uniformly critical of same-sex marriage bills as the proposals worked their way through the two chambers on what can only be described as the fast track.

An issue like this generates lots of buzz, both for and against, captures attention inside and outside the state, and – in a phrase that risks becoming overused – “sucks up all the oxygen.”

In floor debates, few opponents of the bill who objected to the change for religious reasons failed to mention that the Legislature should be doing the important work of fixing the budget rather than tinkering with a social construct that went back at least to time immemorial.

In a year when the state’s general fund budget might be likened to the Costa Concordia, if not the Titanic, that criticism might have some currency. As someone who has remarked only half in jest that the Legislature can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, I am loath to quibble much.

Except that members of both parties have been able to get hearings on all manner of less-than-crucial topics, from novel if unlikely taxing schemes to designating a state rock. And they’ve pushed through the sausage grinder other second-tier but important-to-someone bills, like finding a way for charitable groups to distribute eyeglasses to the poor and tightening up campaign disclosure rules on groups that want to spend millions telling you how to vote on initiatives.

The House and Senate budget committees also have been doing the long slog through long lists of bills that have been introduced by both parties that have something to do with the budget, and must be settled yea or nay to determine whether certain things should be added in or subtracted out of that budget.

No budget was going to be final before this Thursday, anyway, when the Economic Forecast Council delivers its “best guess” of the state’s finances through the rest of this biennium. The current forecast is never exactly the same as the previous one, and a few hundred million dollars more or less is real money.

Here’s the real benefit of the controversial proposals, whether you are for or against: No one can argue that floor debate on the same-sex marriage bill wasn’t some of the best in years. Although both sides were guilty of cherry-picking their Bible verses to fit their point, no one questioned openly anyone else’s integrity or motives.

Many newspapers carried a photo of Gov. Chris Gregoire hugging the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jamie Pedersen, in the wings after the final vote. But for me, the lasting image is Rep. Mark Miloscia, one of the few Democrats who voted no, approaching Rep. Marko Liias, an openly gay member who spoke eloquently in favor; they shook hands, said they respected each other’s positions and promised to work together on other things.

Some of the personal stories woven into the debates were first-rate, from Rep. Matt Shea’s discussion of his wife’s family’s struggle for religious freedom in Ukraine to Rep. Eric Pettigrew’s retelling of his grandfather’s account of a friend who was dragged to death in the South, an African-American teen who had the temerity to give a small gift to a white girl.

But the best, by far, was Rep. Maureen Walsh’s explanation of why she was voting yes. Combining self-deprecating humor with personal anguish, the Walla Walla Republican started out with her status as a widow, after her husband of 23 years died six years ago: “I’m 51 years old, looking for a boyfriend, not having much luck with that. (Sigh) And yet, when I think of my husband … you know, I don’t miss the sex, and that’s kind of what this boils down to. I don’t miss that. Well I certainly miss it … but it’s not the part of that relationship … that I wish I still had. I think to myself, how could I deny anyone the right to have that incredible bond with another individual in life. …”

Walsh explained that her daughter is a lesbian who came out of the closet a few years ago and has met a wonderful woman. “And some day, by God, I want to throw a fabulous wedding for that kid. … I hope she will not feel like a second-class citizen, involved in something called a domestic partnership, which frankly sounds like a Merry Maids franchise to me.”

A short version of Walsh’s speech showed up on several network news shows, and a clip of the full speech on YouTube had more than 1 million hits by week’s end. You can see the clip at the online version of this column.

Reporter Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 879-7461 or jimc@spokesman.com.


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