Monday, October 01, 2012

Pro-civil rights senator's defeat sends wrong messages

You often hear people whining that elected officials have no independent thought, that they merely vote the party line, that they just stick their finger in the wind rather than do what's right. And yet when a politician does show independent thought, bucks the party line and does what he thinks is right, the public too often punishes him. The situation of New York state Sen. Roy McDonald is a case in point.

McDonald was one of four Republicans senators who voted in 2011 to approve a marriage equality law in the state. Without those four votes, the measure would have failed in the GOP-controlled chamber.

As a result, McDonald, who'd never faced a primary challenge to his re-election, was opposed by Kathy Marchione. As Saratoga County clerk, Marchione once pulled a George Wallace, threatening not to apply the same-sex marriage law if it passed.

Marchione very narrowly won the Republican primary. McDonald decided he wouldn't contest the general election, despite having a slot on the Independence Party line.

The most common criticism of his vote in favor of civil rights for gay people seemed to be that he went against the will of the majority of his constituents. This is debatable. But even if that was true, his vote was to respect his oath of office which demanded that he respect the New York and US constitutions, both of which contain equal protection clauses.

Another, more stupid, criticism was that McDonald only did this to get 'gay money,' after the revelation that gay rights groups had donated to his campaign. In reality, if he'd taken the easy way out and voted against gay marriage, he never would've had a far right primary opponent and wouldn't have needed the 'gay money.' Needless to say, much 'anti-gay money' was funneled to Marchione's campaign as well.

The general election will be interesting since Marchione, whose campaign was almost entirely based on her opposition to civil rights for gays, will face openly-gay Democrat Robin Andrews.

It was surely unpleasant for someone with such a conservative voting record as McDonald's to be so crucified by the neo-Taliban for a single vote. Still, it's unfortunate that he choose to not contest the general election. Instead, he let a tiny fringe kick him out of office.

Civil rights opponents are crowing about McDonald's primary defeat. But they should be careful to overestimate their victory. All three other Republican legislators who voted for civil rights and contested primaries won those elections, though some were subjected to some disgusting bigotry as well. Secondly, McDonald was rejected by only a tiny minority of his constituents, all from one party. We'll never know how he would've fared had he subjected himself to the entire electorate.   

Each New York senate district contains around 311,000 people.  About 14,500 people voted in the GOP primary. Thus, his fate as an elected representative was decided by fewer than 5% of his constituents, all from a single party, and only a razor thin majority of that rejected him. The other 95% won't even have a say. This is democracy?

Sen. McDonald lost his job because 2.4% of his constituents, all from a single party, didn't like the job he was doing. There's something about this that fundamentally doesn't sit well.

He should've stayed in the race. His job as senator was given to him by everybody in the district; his service shouldn't be taken away from everyone else just because 2.4% of them didn't like one of his votes.

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