Posted: May 15, 2003; Updated: May 16, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The most important words came early at a press conference Thursday on a gay anti-discrimination bill, and they were spoken by state Rep. William A. Oberle Jr., the Republican sponsor of the legislation.

"Governor, welcome," Oberle said.

Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat, stepped up to a lectern on the steps inside Legislative Hall in Dover and did what she was there to do. In a public declaration, she called for the passage of  a bill outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, insurance and public works contracts.

She did not have to do it, but she did, and it was big. Minner already has said she would sign such a bill, if it got to her desk, but bills like this one are unlikely to get to governors' desks unless they call for them.

It is a bill of unsettling nature, bearing as it does on values, religious beliefs and even self-image. It is so unnerving that people tend to speak of it only by its number, calling it House Bill 99, and not by its content -- a convention Minner herself followed even as she took a stand from which she cannot run and cannot hide.

In fact, Minner did not even utter the disconcerting words, "sexual orientation," until the last sentence of the two-and-a-half page statement she delivered. She cloaked most of what she said in a general discussion of rights, and she left it to 82 religious leaders to speak forthrightly of "lesbian, gay and bisexual persons" in their accompanying statement of support.

"The idea behind H.B. 99 is simple -- to guarantee equal rights in our state in the areas of housing, jobs, public contracts, public accommodations and insurance. Not more rights, not fewer rights -- equal rights. As we look back on the history of our country and our state, we can see it as an evolution of rights," Minner said.

"The story has been one of striving to assure that in a nation where all people are created equal, we guarantee that all people are treated equal. . . .

"What makes us strong as a nation is our willingness to allow people to live as they choose. It's embodied in the most sacred documents in our nation, and it is high time that, when it comes to sexual orientation, that ideal is written into the Delaware Code, as well."

Still, the point is that Minner did say what she said. In 40 years of civil rights history in Delaware, no legislation made it into law without a governor taking the lead.

It took Gov. Elbert N. Carvel, a Democrat, to get a public accommodations law, opening up restaurants, hotels, movies, golf courses, any place that serves the public, to all races in 1963. It took Gov. Russell W. Peterson, a Republican, for passage of an open housing law, outlawing racial discrimination in housing, in 1969. It even took the support of Gov. Pierre S. du Pont, a Republican, before the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. became a state holiday in the mid-1980s.

While the gay equal-rights bill probably could not become law without the governor, there is no guarantee that it will, even with her support. Civil rights measures often take years to be enacted, and this one has a rocky history already and only squishy legislative support.

 It is making its second appearance in the General Assembly. In the last two-year session, the bill squeaked through the House of Representatives by a vote of 21-20, only to be entombed in a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Robert L. Venables Sr., a conservative Democrat.

Since then, five representatives who voted "yes" have lost their seats.

Oberle, the prime sponsor, insists he will have the votes to get the bill through the House and also onto the Senate floor. Still, he did not dispute an account that he has only 19 "yes" votes in his chamber for now and conceded he has no plans to place the bill on the agenda because his vote count is short.

If Oberle can find the votes, it appears that the bill could have a different fate in the Senate than it did before. Senate President Pro Tem Thurman G. Adams Jr., a Democrat who assigns legislation to committee, says he will not necessarily send the measure back to Venables' Small Business Committee.

"We might try somebody different," Adams said.

Minner's advisers say she took her stand because it was the right thing to do, but they are well aware of the political calculus. They are figuring it will help her with the urban and suburban voters upstate without doing any more damage with the rural voters downstate than she already has done with her stand on the smoking ban.

There may not be enough votes in the legislature to pass House Bill 99, but there are enough votes upstate to re-elect a governor. The bill has gained ground, and the governor has done well by doing good.