Monday, December 14, 2009


The limits of representation

There’ve been a couple of setbacks to marriage equality in the northeast U.S. recently. Thursday’s planned vote in the New Jersey state Senate was postponed, and the New York state Senate’s vote a week earlier shot down our state’s proposal by a vote of 38 to 24. The New York state Senate comprises 32 democrats and 30 republicans; all republicans and eight democrats voted against the bill. This is the third time the state Assembly has sent such a bill to the Senate.

One of the eight democrats who helped vote it down is Joe Addabbo, a first-term senator who represents a conservative district in Queens. Much of Senator Addabbo’s district identifies as Catholic, a group that tends to disfavour the idea of same-sex marriage. Even so, GLBT groups campaigned hard for Senator Addabbo, hoping for an ally on gay rights issues, and his vote is widely viewed as a betrayal.

Local talk-show host Brian Lehrer had Senator Addabbo on his radio program two days later, giving the senator a chance to explain his vote. Here’s how he began, at about a minute and a half into the audio:

[...] but at no point did I ever say “yes”. I always promised all, both advocates of the bill, proponents, as well as opponents of the bill that I would keep an open mind. And up to the vote, nobody in the media, and very, very few of my elected-official colleagues, and very few of my constituents, if any, knew of my position.

The reason being, it was my intention to keep an open mind, and by doing so, I felt that I would get a clear indication of where my district stands on this issue. If I was to say that I was against the bill early on, then the only people I would hear from were those who were for it. Conversely, if I said I was for the bill, then the only people I would hear from were those who were... be against it.

Because, I didn’t indicate either way, I feel that of the over 400 emails, faxes, phone calls, conversations that I had with constituents, the 74% who said that they would not want their state senator to vote for this bill was a clear indication where my district was on this issue. And when I took my oath in January to become a state senator, it was to represent the people of the 15th senatorial district, and certainly when you have a clear consensus of the people of the district on a certain issue, that’s the way I think an elected official has to go.

Now, in a post in November I noted that senators, members of the state assembly, and the like “represent their wards, districts, and states in legislative bodies, and it’s they who are expected to fairly represent the needs of their constituents,” so I get what Senator Addabbo is saying, here. So, is he being straight (um...) with us, or is he being disingenuous? Are there limits to representation? Is there a point where the representative’s own moral and ethical sense should kick in and override what he thinks his constituents want? Or is he obliged always to vote as the collective mind of his public?

Brian Lehrer tries to tease that out with a question, but the senator goes nowhere with it:

Lehrer: But if 74% of your callers said to deport all the Hispanics in your district, would you vote for that?

Addabbo: I think it’s a different issue, it’s apples and oranges. Each issue is very different, and certainly, as an elected official, I am the voice of the people of my district, in Albany. And certainly, we take issue by issue.

Lehrer: This is the basis on which to base a vote on civil rights?

Addabbo: You know what?: This is an issue that people have a strong opinion on, and with marriage equality it’s like the spokes of a wheel, there are conversations that you can have on this issue on many levels. Whether it be on the civil rights issue, on the religious issue, on the morality issue. It’s different issues, and it’s different for everyone. And I understand the magnitude of the issue and I understand what it meant to a lot of people... many of those people who had supported me. But, like I said, it makes me be put in a very serious situation, when I have to represent a district, and be their voice in Albany.

But it’s not “apples and oranges”; this is a serious point. How far would the senator take his — admittedly laudable — calling to fairly and rigorously represent his district, even by going against his own views to do so? The senator (probably wisely) refuses to say.

But what’s alarming, here, is that he’s now brought religion into the political arena, as he talks about the spokes of a wheel. One spoke is civil rights, another is religion, another (is it really another, or mostly an aspect of the second?) is morality. As I look at it from the point of view of how our government should be run, I don’t see the religious aspect as being relevant.

We can bring it partially into relevance, though, by saying that he isn’t making his decision based on religion, but based on the opinions of his constituency, and it’s their opinions that are rooted in religion. Can we really question people’s motivations for their stands, and only give credence to those that don’t emanate from piety? Is that reasonable, or even possible?

But when Mr Lehrer pushes one more time for some clue about where the limits to strict representation lie, Senator Addabbo’s answer, still not committing to anything, but telling in its lack of commitment, brings his whole point crashing down:

Lehrer: Do you consider this a civil rights issue?

Addabbo: I can see that argument. I can see the religious argument. I can see the morality argument. Again, I can see the argument on many levels. This issue has that many levels to it.

Lehrer: Do you believe personally that gay marriage should be legal?

Addabbo: You know what?: I’ve always kept my feelings personal, because I am but one opinion. And it’s really an issue that I don’t have strong convictions on either way. That’s why I did keep an open mind, I felt I was most neutral up until the end.

It was that statement that first had me understand that what he’s really doing is hiding behind his constituents on what is, city-wide, an unpopular vote. And the longer he talked, the more clear that became. By doing that, he hopes to have it both ways: he voted his mind, and he can say, “But don’t blame me; I was only doing my constituents’ bidding. Isn’t that what I was elected to do?”

Even as a public representative, one has also been elected to lead. Sometimes one has to take a stand — for civil rights, for public health and safety, for the good of the environment, for the well being of society as a whole — that’s not in line with what the residents of one’s own district want. In any case, whether it is or it isn’t, one should own the decision, and not pass it off with, “It’s them! They made me do it!”

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