Popkey: Add the Words protest marred by focus on former senator

February 4, 2014 

For nearly three hours Monday, a band of more than 40 brothers and sisters in black T-shirts held the high ground outside the three entrances to the Idaho Senate.

Dignified and resolute, they silently protested Idaho lawmakers’ refusal to hold a hearing or even print a bill barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

They stood with hands over their mouths, blocking the doors, as senators, staff and reporters watched. The images, captured on dozens of cameras and widely published, will last.

“We need to see the faces, we need to know the people we’re impacting,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Cherie Buckner-Webb of Boise. “We should be hushed and reflective.”

This is the eighth year lawmakers have been asked to expand protections in the Idaho Human Rights Act that cover race, sex, color, religion, national origin and disability, but not sexual orientation.

Last year, Buckner-Webb helped organize a joint meeting of the House and Senate State Affairs committees. Though the hour-long session wasn’t open to public testimony, it featured a panel including Mistie Tolman, co-chair of the “Add the Words, Idaho” campaign. The meeting prompted talk of alternative legislation that would add workplace and housing protections.

This year, Republican leaders say they won’t take up the issue, prompting Monday’s protesters to exercise an honored tactic of civil disobedience: getting arrested.

Thirty-five minutes before the Senate was to begin, President Pro Tem Brent Hill told protesters they would have to clear the doors so the Senate could convene.

Hill, R-Rexburg, invited them to watch from the gallery. “It’s the peoples’ building and it’s the peoples’ business that has to be done here today,” he said.

With 15 minutes to go, Idaho State Police began the arrests without a harsh word from officers or protesters.

“Ma’am, are you willing to leave the chamber?” officers asked. Whether the answer was silence, “No,” or “Am I under arrest?” they were led upstairs, charged with trespassing and released without incident.

Save one.

Former Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, didn’t go without drawing special attention to herself. Her fellow protesters gone, LeFavour stood alone at the main entrance, enjoying the privilege of floor access accorded to former senators.

“In or out?” Senate Sergeant at Arms Sarah Jane McDonald asked LeFavour. She gave no answer, asked no questions and continued to stand at the threshold. McDonald partially closed the two glass doors.

Later, LeFavour told me she was aware of the rule but intended to be arrested with the others. “I was completely taken off guard. If I had walked away, how would that have looked to the rest of them? I swear to God I thought I would be treated like the rest of them. I had no idea.”

Yet for 13 minutes, LeFavour stood by as her former Senate colleagues answered the roll call, heard the daily prayer, said the Pledge of Allegiance and debated suspending the rule that allowed her to stay.

LeFavour happens to be working on a memoir about her eight years as the only openly gay lawmaker in Idaho history, but she said that had nothing to do with her role Monday. “I didn’t understand what they were doing by not arresting me,” she said. “I was trying to be in the crowd and they singled me out.”

Majority Leader Bart Davis moved to suspend the rule that allows former members access. Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he felt compelled to preserve the “historic dignity that we strive for on this floor.”

Senate Democratic Leader Michelle Stennett of Ketchum seconded the motion. She said Democrats “completely honor and respect” the right of the protesters to say their piece, but added, “We are here doing the business of the people.”

The rule was suspended on a 34-0 vote and LeFavour was finally arrested.

Stennett, a leading advocate of “Add the Words,” said she had no advance word from her former colleague. “It would have been my preference” to be warned, she said, “but they had the right not to.”

“Add the Words” still won’t get a hearing this year. But it’s not the only controversial issue sidelined because Republicans fear tough primaries. Not being considered in 2014 are fiscally prudent highway investments and Medicaid expansion — which would provide health care for 100,000 low-income Idahoans and save local and state taxpayers hundreds of millions — because GOP lawmakers have decided they need to pass a budget and get home to campaign.

Thankfully, LeFavour’s look-at-me performance shouldn’t have much long-term impact. Former colleagues feel burned, but they won’t forget the faces they saw Monday.

“Today, it hurt their cause,” said Davis, who favors workplace and housing protections. “But as time goes by, I don’t think it does. She’s not the only voice on the issue.”

Among those is Buckner-Webb.

“It’s time, it’s way past time,” she said. “They’re gonna keep hearing me, they’re gonna keep seeing us and we’re gonna keep coming back until we’re successful.”

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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