ENDA vote in doubt amid furious protests

by Matt Baume

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday September 19, 2010

As time runs out for a vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, activists blocked Market Street in the Castro September 9 to protest congressional inaction.

"When jobs are lost, the market will stop," said GetEqual's Michelle Wright, comparing the blocked traffic on Market to an economy stalled by discrimination.

ENDA would provide workplace protections for LGBT Americans. Passing the bill, a version of which has been before Congress for more than a decade, is a top priority of national LGBT rights groups.

Passersby at last week's protest mostly agreed with GetEqual's latest direct action aimed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), although some questioned the tactics.

"I agree with the sentiment. I think it's kind of silly to block traffic," said onlooker Ray Courtney.

"I think it's great," said Andrew Reynolds, who said he would have valued federal employment protections at his previous job in the rural South.

About a dozen people were arrested during the protest, including District 8 supervisor candidate Rafael Mandelman. They were taken to Mission Station, cited, and released, he said.

With heavy Democratic losses predicted for November, Congress' attitude toward the bill may soon turn from ambivalent to hostile. But some LGBT activists are backing away from a last-minute push.

"For the next nine weeks, the LGBT community should concentrate its efforts instead on keeping Democrats in power," wrote Alice B. Toklas club Co-Chair Bentrish Satarzadeh in the club's newsletter earlier this month.

According to GetEqual director and co-founder Robin McGehee, congressional sources are confident that ENDA will pass in the "lame duck" session, which falls between the November elections and the January swearing-in of new legislators.

But McGehee is skeptical.

"I find it difficult to believe that the Democratic leadership will suddenly find the moral courage they've been lacking for years in order to get this done," she wrote.

The Human Rights Campaign disagreed.

"The chances of seeing action in lame duck are unfortunately better than right now before the elections, just because of the limited amount of time that is left," said HRC spokesman Michael Cole.

Although HRC feels strongly that ENDA has majority support in the House, Cole said, "in the Senate, it's close." He encouraged supporters to visit http://www.passendanow.com to contact their legislators.

Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) is ENDA's Senate sponsor. "He would of course love to see a vote as soon as possible," said Merkley's press secretary, Mike Westling, but he added that the House of Representatives must act before the Senate can vote.

Responding to a protest at the office of Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in June, press secretary Drew Hammill blamed the Senate for inaction.

"The Senate has no plans for taking up ENDA," Hammill told the Bay Area Reporter in June. "That needs to be the focus ... it would be very hopeful for people to encourage the Senate to outline a plan for considering the bill."

ENDA's backers have been watching this back-and-forth for a year.

"It was supposed to be scheduled last fall, then last winter, then last spring, and then last June, and here we are, still waiting," said Pride at Work's Gabriel Haaland, who joined the protesters in the Castro.

At Netroots Nation, a progressive conference held in July, Pelosi wouldn't say when a vote on ENDA would come, and told an audience that repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would have to come first.

GetEqual organizer Dan Fotou said that he hoped last week's protest would prompt a response from Pelosi. And it did: a terse, four-sentence statement about her commitment to the LGBT community, with no specific mention of ENDA.

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