Friday, March 30, 2007

Hardly a profile in courage

Political Intelligence

Kevin John Sowyrda

Here’s a question to ponder as state lawmakers recklessly careen ahead with plans to take a second vote on an amendment to the state constitution that would take away the civil marriage rights of same-sex couples: Where were these very same legislators in 2000 when voters, by 60 percent to 40 percent margin, ordered them to roll back the state income tax from 5.85 percent to 5 percent?

It’s a fair question. The argument they make today for holding a vote on the anti-gay marriage amendment is that they have a “constitutional obligation” to do so. Of course, they had a “constitutional obligation” to follow the law in 2000 and adhere to a legally binding plebiscite calling for a tax cut. But they ignored it for what they claimed was the good of the state.

You know what? They were right not to roll back the tax rate — which has been a topic of political debate ever since. The state went into a financial freefall in 2001 and lawmakers did something we all claim we want them to do: They acted like leaders.

Where is that leadership today? In 2004, when Gov. Mitt Romney was posturing about taxes in a spending bill he submitted to the legislature that June, declaring in a press conference, “It’s time to do what the voters recommended — not only recommended, but insisted on” and roll state income taxes back to 5 percent, state Sen. Therese Murray, who was then the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, criticized Romney, according to a State House News Service account of budget flap.

Good for Murray for going with her conscience and not the mob. Good for her for rejecting the easy populist politics of tax cuts and standing up for what the Commonwealth needed.

Fast forward a couple of years. Murray has just brokered an historic political deal to become the state’s first Senate President. One of the first questions on the minds of reporters is whether Murray will force a vote on the anti-gay marriage amendment coming up at the next constitutional convention. If the amendment is approved (only 50 votes are needed), the question will be put to voters in a statewide popularity contest.

Murray, to the disappointment of everyone in the Commonwealth who wants to be spared the bloody battle of a statewide referendum on gay rights, says she is committed to holding a vote. “My vote is going to be just what it was the last time,” she told the Boston Globe, referring to her vote against the amendment. “But I am not going to move to adjourn. … I think it’s important that we vote.”

Hmmm. Why is it important to vote on an ugly, anti-gay signature-fraud-ridden measure — a vote, as Murray knows, we are all but certain to lose — rather than strangling it to death via any means possible? When it comes to being obedient to a duly held, state-wide election mandate, Murray goes with her conscience, and I say three cheers for her. But when it comes to saying no to petition papers for an initiative seeking to end civil marriage rights for same-sex couples, papers that were signed by a mere fraction of those who voted in that 2000 election, Murray sings the petitioners’ song. What are we to make of this? Do leadership qualities evaporate once one has achieved a leadership position?

Before I go any further, let me tell you just how much I respect Terry Murray. Although I’m at serious risk of engaging in an obnoxious Brian McGrory-esque rhetorical device, I’ve got to say that the Terry Murray I saw last week is not the Terry Murray I know.

I’ve worked with Murray in the past and unlike many politicians I know (like, say, her immediate predecessor in the Senate President’s chair), Murray is persuaded by few factors beyond walking distance of her heart and her conscience. I should note here that once upon a time I quarterbacked a fundraiser for Murray as a political consultant. And prior to that I worked with her in my capacity as a member of the Weld Administration. I was lobbying for the so called “dead beat dad bill” and Murray was an avid supporter of it. I found her to be one of the most savvy politicos I’ve ever observed at work on Beacon Hill. And she is savvy. Witness her new title: Senate President.

All that said, her statements last week about the amendment disappointed me. Murray is in a position to do something her predecessor Robert Travaglini refused to do. She can kill a poisonous amendment that could 1) impact the 2008 presidential election; 2) bring millions of evangelical ad dollars into the state in an attempt to convince voters to take away our rights; 3) reverse the most dramatic civil rights advance this country has seen since 1955’s Brown v. Board of Education. The Terry Murray that I know and have worked with not only knows what needs to be done but she knows what should be done. But that’s not the Terry Murray I saw last week.

Here’s what I’m hoping. I’m hoping that she’s even savvier than I ever believed and has something up her sleeve. As much as I wanted her to just come out and say to the reporters asking about the marriage amendment something like, “My belief in civil rights for all people tells me that the ballot box is not the venue for proscribing the personal freedoms for people in the Commonwealth,” I know that she can’t.

At least she can’t this week. But she sure can say it after she’s killed the amendment. And the Terry Murray I know, the Terry Murray I hope is still in office, despite her change of title, will do just that.

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