A Seat at the Table, and the Consequences of Not Having One

04/03/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

People's attention is grabbed by sexy political issues -- war and peace, taxes, corruption, sex scandals -- but not by the nuts and bolts of governance. Governance includes maintaining human and physical capital, and doing so in a transparent and accountable way so that the people get what they vote and pay for. Governance gets done under the radar, when it gets done at all, and is not noticed until a catastrophe occurs or a greatly desired legislative outcome fails to come to pass. And then we ask why.

There are a myriad of backstories in the legislative history of this year's failure of Maryland's gender identity anti-discrimination bill. There's a very colorful cast of characters, from the governor down through the state Senate committee where it died. There are Democrats standing proudly in the 21st century, and Democrats who have yet to have to leave the 19th. There is the usual collection of personality quirks and family secrets that contributed directly to the unfavorable report. There were warring factions of advocates, and factions within factions, so characteristic of progressives of the past 40 years.

But it was a single act of the Maryland Senate president upon the beginning of the new year that settled the fate of this bill. It was done for a very good reason, a reason that I support, but one of its consequences was the failure of this bill. Maryland state Sen. Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George's) was a staunch ally of the trans community; state Sen. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's) has stood against this bill for seven years now. What would have been simple became complex, so complex that a series of maneuvers in committee could not be coordinated to get the bill out with a favorable report.

One major irony is that the majority of the American people believe that these anti-discrimination protections already exist nationally. Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post noted such last week, and polls on this issue are very consistent. Yet we have two senators from Baltimore County, which has comprehensive anti-discrimination protections, one from a pretty liberal area and one from near the area where Chrissy Polis was brutally beaten in a McDonald's two years ago, who won't stand for fairness. We have a state senator from Prince George's County who has eloquently related his own history of discrimination but was unwilling to support his trans constituents, persons who have no protections in his county today.

Instead of sailing through committee with progressive Democratic support, the bill hit a stone wall (no pun intended) and again suffered defeat. It turns out that, this time, the outcome wasn't different after all, but the solid majority support we have in the Maryland General Assembly overall is different. And it gets back to the structure of the state Senate and the lack of democratic action in the institutional politics of the chamber that allows such outcomes.

There are always winners and losers in legislative systems, and we have to play the game that exists. It's particularly heartbreaking when a citizen comes to testify and pours out her heart, expecting legislators to be moved to action, and then watches the system take on a life of its own and completely ignore her plea. However, that's reality in any given session, with 2,500 bills being considered by 188 people, and it's personal relationships, the persuasiveness within those relationships and perseverance that ultimately gets results.

We can work to democratize the chambers, yielding greater transparency (committee members should have their votes on amendments recorded, the amendments should be downloadable, and the voting sessions should be open to the public and webcast as well) and thus accountability. The legislators should get to organize their own committees and elect their own chairs, just as they do senior leadership each year.

We can work on this project the way the system is designed to work -- by electing people who are committed to clean and open government, who are willing to stand and fight for an ethical, accountable system of representation that is responsive to the people. We can do this if and only if we educate others on the importance of our state and local governments, get them involved and encourage qualified individuals, with a diversity of skills, experience and perspectives, to run for office. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it, and it might as well be 21st-century Democrats who want to leave a more progressive America for their children and grandchildren.

Last week we saw remarkable events at the Supreme Court of the United States relating to marriage equality, equal protection and federalism, events that were unthinkable a few years ago. When Justice Elena Kagan read from a 1996 committee report from the U.S. House of Representatives in support of DOMA, the crowd gasped. How far we've come in overcoming one form of moral animus in this country! When questioned about the proceedings by Alex Wagner on MSNBC, HRC President Chad Griffin came back to his fundamental message, "Come out, come out, wherever you are," so that we will see more and more people coming out and becoming known by others at an accelerating pace. What has held true for gay persons, black persons, Hispanic persons, Jewish persons (Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the DOMA case, is Jewish, as is her attorney and three of the justices) and so many other American minorities also holds true for trans persons.

Quoting Justice Anthony Kennedy from 2001, the Solicitor General remarked that prejudice can arise not just from hostility but from "the simple want of careful reflection or an instinctive response to a class of people or a group of people who we perceive as alien or other." We certainly had our share of that in the Judicial Proceedings Committee of the Maryland Senate.

Finally, another political epigram remains in play: If you're not at the table, you're on the menu. It's been true for every minority community in America, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) frequently repeats it in her speeches. Yet there is not a single trans person around a legislative table anywhere in America. So come out, get out of the house and get involved -- and run for office while you're at it.