Cage Match on Capitol Avenue

There is a battle going on in the Indiana Statehouse.  And it isn’t the one you might think I mean.

It reminds me of a cage match.  It is very much like that barbaric cross between wrestling, boxing and street fighting where there is no escape from the conflict contained within the cage.  Some might think I am making the analogy between supporters of civil rights for the LGBT community and the evangelical conservatives who oppose them.  But I am not.

The conflict to which I refer is the one within the heart and soul of each individual decision maker in the Indiana General Assembly these next few weeks.

I am talking about the battle each elected official has when deciding to act as a “delegate” of his constituents or as their “trustee.”  On the current topic of expanding civil rights, this struggle is really all that is left.  Smart people on both sides of the debate see the current state of affairs as a more complicated mess, and I hope to simplify it here.

When one is elected to public office, they have the option of executing their duties as they might think the majority of their constituency would act.  This “delegate” approach is usually seen as the most politically safe way to proceed.  These guys live on surveys and polling data.  Abandoning this approach, as if the elected official simply knows better than those who sent him there is often politically risky, but public service is often too complicated to avoid it as a rule.

Taking the approach of the “trustee” happens more than the general public knows.  For example, voters in northeast rural Indiana haven’t been polled and wouldn’t know what to think about Unigov matters in Indianapois.  So their legislators get to vote their conscience on matters like those, and countless others, free from consequence.

More complicated votes come on road funding issues that may or may not include tax increases.  Don’t waste money on a poll, everyone wants better roads and no one wants higher taxes.  So good luck legislators–get in there and deliver us that win-win we all expect.

The civil rights debate this year is a little different.  When the constituency is the entire state of Indiana, a seasoned politico knows that the public support for the expansion of civil rights to include the LGBT community is substantial enough right now to be supportive of it. I predict that the overwhelming support for expanding civil rights protections will grow until the minority of those who oppose it are generally embarrassed to speak of their opposition. Give that five years.

Governor Pence, if only acting as a “delegate,” should support it.

So then, what’s the problem?  Why is the legislature struggling with it so much?  When broken down by legislative district, the polling data gets a little tighter.  But that only matters for the delegate side of things, and it also only applies to polling data now.  Right now.

What has happened over the last couple of years with trends is undeniable.  The tolerance for discrimination against identifiable groups is on its last leg.  The legislative issue here cannot be hidden from, so a decision must be made.  And we can’t forget that the urgency for action grew out of the error this legislature made last year on RFRA.  Not expanding protections this year would be the equivalent of supporting discrimination.  And if that is the outcome of the 2016 legislative session, the campaign of 2016 will be a wild one.

There is no negative governmental expenditure forced upon the state for passing civil rights reform.  The only fiscal impact comes from detrimental economic development and tourism if we cling to our intolerant label through inaction.

The “trustees” in our legislature need to beat down the “delegates.”  Realizing of course that many of those struggles exist within the same person.

What do we expect the polling data to show a year from now?  Let me explain why support will only grow.  There will be tens of thousands of young people in Indiana who can vote then who can’t vote now.  Almost all of them support expanded civil rights.  Many opponents of it are elderly, a shrinking population.  The opponents can’t combat this. Game over.

This is one of those times that the decision makers who are struggling with this are just going to have to do the right thing.  It is worth losing a primary challenge, if that is the troubling consequence.  Faced with that, I recommend educating voters on the issue instead of simply fearing an ignorant response at the ballot box and hoping for the best.  It’s tougher than I make it sound, but it is the current challenge.

No politician likes disappointing voters.  But the trustee in all of them knows that this ship has set sail.  It is sailing away from the days of discrimination and it is never, ever coming back.

Governor Pence’s State of the State speech on Tuesday will be fascinating.  He is the one politician in the Statehouse who needs to act as a delegate and announce his support for expanded rights in that speech. Sixty-seven percent of his constituency is all ears.