OLYMPIA—Washington's former Senate Republican leader on Monday said he will reverse himself and vote for a gay civil rights bill, all but assuring its passage this year after two decades of debate and narrow defeats.
Sen. Bill Finkbeiner's decision last year to stick with his Republican colleagues led to its one-vote defeat in the Senate last year after it sailed through the House.
The measure would add "sexual orientation" to a state law that already bans discrimination in housing, employment and insurance based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, marital status and other factors.
"I've had a number of conversations over the past year that have led me to more fully understand the level of discrimination against gays and lesbians, and I now find it is both appropriate and necessary for the state to make it clear that this is not acceptable," Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, said in a written statement obtained by The Associated Press before it was widely released.
The bill has been introduced — and rejected — annually for nearly 30 years in the Legislature.
The state House passed the bill 61-37, with six Republicans joining 55 Democrats to pass it. But it lost in the Senate, where two Democrats, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, joined 23 Republicans in defeating the bill.
Finkbeiner, who stepped down as Senate minority leader last year, is a former Democrat who supported the bill once before when he was a House member.
"It's an issue that I've struggled with since I've been in the Legislature," Finkbeiner later said by phone. "I know there are going to be some people who are disappointed. Hopefully, they understand this is an issue of conscience."
The Rev. Joseph Fuiten, a Bothell pastor who is chairman of Faith & Freedom Network, an organization that opposes the bill, said Finkbeiner is not representing his constituents.
"It's time for Bill Finkbeiner to move on," Fuiten said. "I'll never endorse him again. He is not representing the values of the 45th district or the views of the people in the 45th district."
Finkbeiner, a social moderate from the Seattle suburbs, faces a potentially grueling challenge for re-election this fall in a district that has trended Democratic in recent elections. Software millionaire Erick Oemig has announced for the Democratic nomination.
Finkbeiner was a Democrat when he was first elected to the state House in 1992, but switched parties in the Republican landslide year of 1994, when he won the first of his Senate terms.
Gay rights activists have vowed to challenge incumbent suburban Republicans who vote against the anti-discrimination bill this year. The major employer in Finkbeiner's district, Microsoft, also has come out in favor of the measure, a year after being denounced for quietly dropping support for it.
State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who has sponsored the bill for more than a decade, called Finkbeiner's announcement "courageous."
"I think he should be commended by Democrats and Republicans alike for making a courageous decision, to being open to listening to people and willing to change his mind," Murray said.
Murray said Finkbeiner had told him this weekend that he was going to change his vote.
"This bill has been a roller coaster ride," Murray said. "I'm excited and very, very cautious."
While the bill will have no trouble passing through the House, supporters in the Senate will have to make sure no other lawmakers switch their vote.
Fuiten said that his organization is hoping to get some Democrats who may be on the fence to vote against the measure.
But House Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the votes in her caucus were solid, though she didn't want to celebrate the bill's victory just yet.
"I wait until I see the number on the board," she said.
— The Associated Press