Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bipartisan Votes Key to LGBT Legislative Successes - Part II

In which the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act becomes law, and we learn the power of committee chairpersonship

[Be sure to read Part I]

77th Legislature
HB 587 (James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act)
by Thompson
Passed on Second Reading
Yea (77 Democrats, 10 Republicans)
Nay (60 Republicans)
Present, Not Voting (1 Democrat)
Absent (1 Republican)
Absent, Excused (1 Republican)

The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act created a mechanism to allow prosecutors to seek tougher sentences for defendants convicted of committing crimes where the victim was targeted based on their real or perceived race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, or "sexual preference".

The Democrats held the majority in the House during the 77th session, with 78 of the 150 House Seats. Versions of the Hate Crimes Bill had been introduced every regular session since the brutal murder of Paul Broussard (targeted for being gay) in Houston in 1991 but had failed to pass. During the 76th regular session Rep. Senfronia Thompson, frustrated with the stalled efforts and galvanized by the recent vicious murder of James Byrd Jr. (targeted for being black), took the lead in passing the bill. Thompson used her position as chair of the Judicial Affairs Committee to stall the legislation of Representatives who opposed the bill.

The Texas State Constitution requires all bills to be "read" three times on the House floor. After the first "reading" the bill is referred to one of the House committees which then must vote for the bill to proceed. Once the bill is out of committee it is then sent to one of the Calendar Committees which schedules it for a second reading. It's during second readings that the real debate takes place. Although there is one more vote after the third reading it is rarely a record vote.

When HB 587 passed the House on second reading every Democrat voted for it (other than the Speaker, who traditionally only votes in cases of ties) - as did 10 Republicans. Although the Hate Crimes Act would have passed with only Democratic votes, the bipartisan support garnered was crucial later when the bill went to the Senate, which was controlled by the Republicans.

The key to passing the Hate Crimes bill was Rep. Thompson and her chairwomanship. As Chair of the House Judiciary Committee she was in a position to, at her discretion, choose which bills referred to that committee received hearings and were voted on by the committee (it is possible for a majority of the members of the committee to bypass the chair but it is almost unheard of). She used that power to negotiate with key members who were holding up the vote on the Hate Crime bill.

Committee chairs are selected by the Speaker of the House, who is selected by the members of the House (and is historically a member of the ruling party). This is one way that the majority party can exercise their power, and one of the reasons it matters which party is in the majority. Unlike the U.S. Congress, where committee chairs are almost always all members of the ruling party, Texas House Speakers have historically appointed committee chairs from both parties, roughly in proportion with each party's House Membership (there is pressure from the Texas far right for the Speaker to abandon that practice, which is short-sighted).

Thompson was also able to leverage her personal friendship to get the House's most vitriolic homophobe, Warren Chisum, to support the bill by changing "Sexual Orientation" to the more prejudicial "Sexual Preference". Without Chisum's opposition it was difficult for more conservative Democrats to justify their opposition.

The personal relationships that House members develop with each other are probably more influential to getting legislation passed than any other single factor. Thompson is currently the second longest serving member of the House, and even in 1999 she held significant seniority. That lifetime of building relationships was crucial in the passage of the Hate Crimes Act.

What makes Rep. Thompson's advocacy for this bill so amazing was her unwillingness to drop sexuality from the list of characteristics against which motivating bias could trigger the Hate Crimes enhancement. The bill would have likely have flown through the legislative process without this inclusion. Rep. Thompson's willingness to take the more difficult path is laudable even as we, a decade later, lament the exclusion of Gender Identity and Expression from the statute and the use of "Sexual Preference".

Up next in Part II: the Texas Defense of Marriage Act, how to tell who your real friends are and bipartisanship is also the key to LGBT legislative failures

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