01/17/2012 02:07 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

When Politics Threatens Marriage Equality

If you want an illustration as to what is wrong with politics, look no further than the debate on marriage equality in the state of Washington and the views of Sen. Brian Hatfield (D). First a little background: a measure deregulating marriage to allow same-sex marriage contracts is going to be proposed this month. Public opinion polls show majority support for the measure, the governor is on board, and the State House is set to pass it. The State Senate has 23 confirmed supporters, with 25 needed to assure passage.

A handful of senators is undecided, and Hatfield is one of them. In and of itself, being undecided is not necessarily an indication of some character flaw or the malevolent influence of political incentives, but what Hatfield expresses as his reasons for concern illustrates the problem to which I allude. The Seattle Times reports:

"For a number of legislators, (the gay-marriage vote) is not that big of a deal based on their districts, based on their social circle and everything. For me, it is a loser," Hatfield said. "It's a loser no matter what."

The senator says he has good friends on both sides of the issue, and he worries about what a no or yes vote could do to those relationships.

Hatfield also said he struggles with the fact the majority of his district voted against Referendum 71, the so-called "everything but marriage" law. The measure was approved by voters statewide.

"It's not a clear, black-and-white issue as a lot of people on both sides believe it is," he said.

Hatfield said he would prefer that gay marriage be put on the ballot. If it comes to an up-or-down vote on the law in the Senate, he said he's not sure what he'll do.

Please notice what concerns Hatfield is not principles, or whether there are great issues involving right or wrong. It isn't about rights, or limiting government powers to interfere in private affairs. His concern is all about how his vote will impact his political career. He is upset because it's "a loser no matter what." He's worried about what the majority thinks, not because there is some inherent rightness or wrongness in majority opinions, but because of how people vote and whether he will get elected again.

Hatfield isn't even worried about the majority in the state of Washington. His concern is far more provincial and personal. He is concerned only about the "majority of his district." In other words, his concern is whether he can further his career or not. The reason he wants a public vote is so he can evade the fallout of taking a stand.

Perhaps he waxed eloquent elsewhere about the rights of people and some view he holds that makes the decision difficult, but in this interview the concerns he expressed were all about how can he vote on a contentious issue harming his political career. It is pure self-interest.

Yes, politics is filled with self-interest. I argue that all politicians are just as self-interested as any "greedy" group they attack, no matter on which side of the aisle they sit. Of course, politicians have an ability most other "self-interested" individuals don't have: the ability to force others to comply with their will.

Now and then, however, they actually have to make a decision where they can't just serve their own narrow self-interest. Sometimes they have to reveal what principles they hold. Consider the vote of Sen. Roy McDonald (R) in New York. With marriage equality on the cusp of passing, it needed just a handful of additional votes. McDonald, representing a conservative district, told the media, "Well, fuck it; I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing." He voted for marriage equality, not because it would further his career, but because he was "trying to do the right thing." Sadly "trying to do the right thing" doesn't appear to be on Hatfield's agenda.

I welcome Hatfield's explicit invocation of his self-interest in the matter. Too many people make the assumption that the private sector is filled with demons while government is run by angels. Both are riddled with precisely the same motivations as the other. I hope Hatfield's admission will awaken those naïve souls.

Perhaps Mr. Hatfield simply doesn't realize how his whine about the risk of principles is an open invitation to the public to inundate him with emails and phone calls. Since he wants to do what is best for himself politically, and can't push the measure off to a public vote, he has to decide one way or another. The only way he is going to make a decision is on the basis of which side is loudest.

Mr. Hatfield's public email is, and his office phone number is (360) 786-7636.

There are other fence-sitters, as well, though none of them have been as explicit in worrying about their careers as Mr. Hatfield. Senators who are possible supporters of the measure, but officially undecided, are listed below.

Mary Margaret Haugen:, (360) 786-7618.
Jim Kastama:, (360) 786-7648.
Paull Shin:, (360) 786-7640.
Andy Hill:, (360) 786-7672.
Joe Fain:, (360) 786-7692.