North Dakota’s Democrats Are Sandbagging Gay Rights Legislation

Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, listens to Human Services Committee Chairman Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, answer a question Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, during the floor debate on HB1386 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. The bill, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, was defeated 22-69. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

For the fourth time in the last decade legislation to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity failed in the state Legislature (watch video of the floor debate here).

Not surprisingly that news inspired frustration and disappointment among some, including U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, the only Democrat elected to statewide office in our state.

The efforts to pass this legislation in the state assembly have been spearheaded by state Rep. Josh Boschee of Fargo, a Democrat and our state’s first openly gay lawmaker. “Since day one, we’ve been ready and willing to work in a bipartisan fashion to pass this bill,” he said in a statement after last week’s effort failed. “We cannot let perfect be the enemy of good when it comes to providing basic protections that are so important to so many of our citizens. Passing a bill that provides these protections — even if it doesn’t include every single provision we want — is better than not passing any bill at all.”

I agree with Boschee that it would have been nice to see Republican lawmakers approve amendments to this legislation so that the law would, at the very least, ban discrimination by the government in areas like employment and housing.

But his comments about how hard he and others have been working to pass this legislation? I’m not buying it.

If Boschee is so concerned about working with Republicans to pass this legislation, why has he been introducing what has essentially the same bill over and over again? Why hasn’t he reached out to the Republican majorities voting against these bills to craft something that wouldn’t, to use his words, let “the perfect be the enemy of the good”?

…why, after a decade of trying in the Legislature, haven’t Boschee and others sought to put this issue on the statewide ballot through the initiated measure process?

Why not split the bill up into parts, some of which might earn a majority of lawmaker votes?

And why, after a decade of trying in the Legislature, haven’t Boschee and others sought to put this issue on the statewide ballot through the initiated measure process?

I’ll admit that I’m no fan of legislating at the ballot box, but my reservations about direct democracy don’t change the fact that there exists, in the law, a manner by which the voters can bypass the legislature.

This fight for anti-discrimination policy in North Dakota has been good for tens of thousands of dollars worth of contributions from across the country to the political campaigns of Boschee and other Democrats. Given that the Democrats are getting no traction on this issue in the legislature – the bill lost by a wide margin in the House last week than it did back during the last session in 2015 – wouldn’t that money maybe be better spent on an initiated measure campaign?

And before you dismiss this idea as unworkable because North Dakotans are simply too socially conservative to vote for this sort of measure, keep in mind that political observers (including this one) were surprised when a measure to legalize access to medical marijuana passed with about 64 percent of the vote last year.

If anti-discrimination policy is important to gay rights proponents – and I have no doubt that it is – what’s the excuse for not taking the issue to the people?

The only answer I can come up with is that it wouldn’t serve the interests of North Dakota’s Democrats.

While the Democrats have failed to move this ball up field in state government, they’ve succeeded in using it as an effective political weapon on the campaign trail.

It is no coincidence that District 44, Boschee’s district, was the only place where Democrats gained ground on Republicans in the 2016 election.

President Barack Obama himself cut ads for Boschee last year.

Graphic posted with a news release on the North Dakota Democratic-NPL website.

This issue is valuable for Democrats. If they solve it, even in part, it becomes a less potent political tool to drive fundraising and voter turnout.

With Democrats already pushed to the extreme margins in our state’s governance, they can’t afford to lose a tool like this. Which is why they’ll maintain their Sisyphean efforts to win the battle in the Legislature instead of pursuing a more likely avenue for success.

If they eventually get something past the Republicans they can take a victory lap. But in the mean time they’ll keep cashing those campaign checks.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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