Rep. Poliquin can’t explain his sneak attack on civil rights

Rep. Poliquin can’t explain his sneak attack on civil rights

Bruce Poliquin is “outraged”! Outraged “that political opponents or members of the press would claim or insinuate that I cast a vote due to pressure or party politics.”

What vote is Representative Poliquin talking about? And why did he cast it? Why would it be outrageous to cast a vote for partisan reasons? And what reason would Poliquin rather we ascribe to him? We should know the answers to these questions because he is part of Maine’s congressional delegation, but also because of what these answers tell us about the contemporary state of our politics and our legal rights.

Long story short(ish), the vote that the Congressman feels so maligned about is part of a scrimmage over civil rights that has been going on in Congress since President Obama issued Executive Order 13672, back in 2014. The order forbids federal contractors from discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity; basically, it means that our tax money can’t go to companies that refuse to hire people because the owners of those companies disapprove of who those people love, or what gender those people are.

A lot of the debate and media coverage regarding that order referenced “gay rights,” which, by the way, is a pernicious locution. We celebrate the civil rights movement, not the “black rights movement.” Executive Order 13672 was a victory for all of us, because any time the federal government acts to defend our civil rights, it is a victory for all of us. We all know this; that is why opposition to Executive Order 13672 is being framed as a “defense of religious freedom.”

For example: on Wednesday, the House passed the new National Defense Authorization Act, which included an amendment, authored by Representative Steve Russell of Oklahoma, which states that the federal government must provide “protections and exemptions” for any “religious corporation, religious association, religious educational institution, or religious society” that is the recipient of ANY “federal contract, subcontract, grant, purchase order, or cooperative agreement.” In plain English: if any damn organization that is paid by the federal government is “religious,” (and that criteria is not clearly defined), it is exempt from civil rights regulations. We’ve seen this argument before, or course; it was made by segregationists for years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, premised on the bizarre idea that the Constitutional ban on Congressional interference with the free exercise of religion compels all of us to spend our tax dollars subsidizing discrimination.

Thursday, just one day later, in response to the Russell Amendment, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney of New York introduced an amendment of his own, forbidding contractors on military and Veterans Affairs construction projects from discriminating against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In his floor speech, Maloney combined personal experience with a damn persuasive reading of the previous day’s NDAA vote. “This is about whether we will reaffirm equal right or rationalize discrimination. When my husband and I got married after waiting 22 years, so many of you expressed your support. Will you now look me in the eye and say it would be okay for me to lose my job over it?” ()

Which brings us back to Representative Poliquin, whose answer to Representative Maloney was, in essence, “Look you in the eye and say it’s ok for you to be fired because of whom you love? Absolutely not! I’ll tell you that behind your back, in a cowardly last-minute attack. But NOT for partisan reasons!”

To be fair, this was bad luck for Poliquin. The national media doesn’t usually pay a lot of attention to House votes, especially this year, what with the Trump three ring circus running 24/7. But the vote against the Maloney amendment was aggressively nasty enough to draw media attention; when the vote deadline arrived, the amendment was successful, but the GOP leadership kept the clock running beyond the agreed-upon time, while the whips pushed and pushed until they got the numbers they wanted. Imagine watching a game in New York when, at the end of the 9th inning, the Sox were the winners, until the umpires announced that the game would continue until the Yankees take the lead. And then imagine that the stakes of the game are whether or not Americans can lose their jobs for exercising civil rights that the Supreme Court recognized just one year earlier.

Last year, Representative Poliquin voted in favor of an amendment almost identical to the Maloney amendment, and this year, he voted for the Maloney amendment as well. But then came the big push from the GOP leadership, and the congressman suddenly decided that civil rights are dispensable, and he switched his vote.

And he is outraged – OUTRAGED – that people think he did that for partisan reasons.

Let’s weigh that possibility for a moment, shall we?

Party matters enormously in Congress, and that’s not a bad thing. The parties help to organize members around the complex arrangements that at least attempt to provide representation to a broad array of interests. Elections to the House are geographically organized and, generally, House leaders try to remember Tip O’Neill’s injunction that “all politics are local”; if some big national issue would cost one of your members their chance at reelection, you’re supposed to cut them some slack. But sometimes the party leadership tells you, “this vote is central to the success of the party, and we NEED your vote.” That’s not a nasty backroom deal (as much as I love the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s new nickname, “Backroom Bruce Poliquin”!) It’s just the internal logic of our institutional politics.

But Maine is way ahead of the curve when it comes to the civil rights of LGBT Americans, and party leadership is not supposed to make members vote against the preferences of their states unless it’s a crucial, DEFINING issue for the party. So is that what this is for the GOP? Is denying civil rights to fellow Americans really the issue that the Republican leadership wants to define itself around?

And Representative Poliquin: are you really OUTRAGED at the idea that you voted against the Maloney amendment because all members have to support their party on key, defining issues in order to pass their own agendas? And if so…what would you rather we believe?

Do you have “integrity,” Representative Poliquin? Do you support stripping fellow Americans of their civil rights because you deeply believe in that cause?

Honestly, I would understand a representative supporting their party; I’d still vote against them if they were in the other party, but I wouldn’t take it personally. But if you’re really outraged at that idea, then I guess you’re telling me that you hold your state’s support of civil rights in contempt, that you want to define YOURSELF, not your party, around a form of discrimination that a majority of your fellow Mainers are on record as opposing, that you genuinely believe that people like your colleague, Representative Maloney, deserves no legal protection against any thug with a thin veneer of an excuse for attacking him, and that you want me to pay for that thuggery with my tax dollars. In which case, with all due respect, Congressman, go to Hell.

So, readers, if you agree with me, here’s one way to defeat the principled and unpartisan hate-monger from the Second District.  And here’s another.

Representative Poliquin wants to make sure we believe that his sneaky attack on fellow Americans represents his sincere beliefs; let’s show him what we believe in.

About author

Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.


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