Our hugely popular governor must be feeling pretty disoriented right now.
Charlie Baker was jeered Wednesday night at an LGBT networking event because he would not commit to signing a bill extending new legal protections to transgender men and women. A national gay and lesbian business group has also rescinded an award Baker was to receive this month.
The man who could do no wrong has done wrong. The governor is now way behind the curve on the bill — which would protect transgender people’s rights to use public places, including the bathrooms that match their gender identity. Many other elected officials, police chiefs, corporations, and sports teams back it. Seventeen other states have passed similar protections. The debacle in North Carolina — where attempts to extend protections for transgender people led to a backlash and an odious law curtailing their rights — has added to the sense of urgency.
What is Baker hung up on here? After all, he says he doesn’t want to see discrimination against transgender people. On Friday, after my eleventieth request for details on the governor’s position, his press secretary sent along a statement: “Governor Baker is pleased that Massachusetts public schools adhere to policies that accommodate transgender students’ needs and believes employers should also accommodate transgender individuals’ needs.”
That’s hopeful because public schools are required to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms in which they are comfortable. Is that the policy with which Baker is pleased?
Who knows? I’ve put a simple question to his people more than once: Which bathroom does the governor believe a transgender woman should use? I never get an answer.
So we’re left to speculate. Is this governor, a leader among Republicans on gay rights, supportive of the bill but worried about further alienating conservatives in his party? Or is he fine with gay and lesbian rights but still too unfamiliar with, or uncomfortable with, transgender people to see their needs are real? Does he want an exemption to the law for those with religious or other objections?
Whatever the reason, his refusal to say whether he would sign or veto the bill is making him look pretty lame. Usually, Baker comes across as smart and direct, acting mostly without regard to political considerations. Here, he’s hidden behind an argument that is demonstrably false: that he doesn’t weigh in on legislation before it gets to his desk. As if we’ll forget his recent volubility on opiates and charter schools.
The video from Wednesday night shows him looking more surprised than he should have been. He patronized the transgender men and women in attendance, urging them to tell their stories to build support for a bill that has been around for nine years. They’ve been telling their stories for a decade.
“He was saying, ‘Tell your stories,’ and we were saying, ‘Listen to them,’ ” said Kasey Suffredini, campaign cochair of Freedom Massachusetts, which is pushing for the law.
Now, legislators haven’t covered themselves in glory here. The Senate strongly backs the bill. But there is not yet a veto-proof majority in the House, though Speaker Robert DeLeo supports the measure. A deadline to move the bill forward has been extended to May 2. Last week, Denise Provost, the Somerville representative who sponsored the legislation, speculated it had been delayed so that nervous members could see if they face opponents in this year’s election. Contemplate for a moment just how ignoble that is, with the actual rights of human beings at stake.
And then there is Baker’s Hamlet act. He has enjoyed a long and glorious honeymoon in Massachusetts. Now, faced with a thorny political situation, and perhaps a moral dilemma, his aura is decidedly fading.
The question is, are we now seeing the limits of Baker’s social liberalism, or of his leadership? We won’t know until a bill emerges. Let’s go, Mr. Speaker.