Fight ahead over law on hate crimes

Revival: The measure failed in Congress last year, but Democrats promise to make it a priority.

January 02, 2000|By Bill Ghent

THE IMAGES are indelible: Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead in Wyoming; James Byrd, a black man dragged to his death in Texas by racists who tied him to the back of a truck; Jewish children terrorized by a white supremacist gunman in California.

Despite the public outcry surrounding these events, an effort to revamp and expand the federal hate crimes law failed last year, a victim of intense end-of-session bargaining between the White House and congressional Republicans.

But even in defeat, advocates for the measure are claiming a slight victory -- the measure became a stated priority for the White House and Democrats, who were successful at least in getting the bill through the Senate. And the legislation could re-emerge as a high-profile election-year issue, with Democrats vowing to push the issue at the expense of a GOP leadership less than eager to take up a civil rights measure conservatives oppose.

The hate crimes proposal, authored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, would broaden the federal government's jurisdiction over perceived hate-based attacks, mostly by permitting the FBI and other federal agencies to investigate crimes committed against gays, women and the disabled. Current hate crimes law only covers race, religion and national origin.

Nearly one year after Shepard's death, the White House, under pressure from gay and civil rights groups, revived interest in the legislation in October after Republican leaders ordered it stripped from a Justice Department spending bill.

"After all we've been through in this country in the last couple of years, and all the hate crimes we've seen, I just don't see how we can possibly walk away from this session of Congress and not pass this," Clinton told reporters during an Oct. 25 news conference on the South Lawn. The president mentioned hate crimes in more than 30 speeches near the end of the congressional session and even went so far as to declare hate and intolerance "the biggest problem the world faces."

But the public declarations of support did not translate into tough behind-the-scenes deal making. As last-minute budget negotiations wore on, the hate crimes proposal never equaled the importance of spending for teachers or police on the White House priority list.

"In the end, it proved impossible to make a nonmonetary item non-negotiable," explained Maria Echaveste, the White House deputy chief of staff.

And most lawmakers seemed more preoccupied with efforts to bring home federal money for local projects than with advancing civil rights legislation.

"They were all sent there to do the right thing, but all they were doing was bargaining over pork barrel projects. This isn't how it's supposed to work," said Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, who visited Washington in November to plead for the bill's passage.

Now the White House is vowing to give the bill a second chance in the forthcoming session, although proponents of the legislation admit election-year politics and the opposition of key Republicans, who are unsympathetic to the gay rights agenda, will complicate matters.

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, has likened homosexuality to alcoholism and kleptomania, and GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush -- who did not back a hate crimes bill in his home state of Texas, where Byrd was killed -- said recently that he would not even meet with gay Republicans because it would "create kind of a huge political nightmare for people."

A Republican source close to GOP leaders said it would be very difficult for the leadership to take on a hate crimes measure without alienating the powerful religious wing of the party.

"If you start to take on some of these issues that are gay priorities, you inevitably get yourself to the really uncomfortable stuff, like marriage and benefits," said the source, adding: "[Republicans] are not willing to tread down there right now."

The leadership is "a little slow to warm up to the reasons for the hate crimes bill," admitted Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, a moderate who was instrumental in securing a meeting between Shepard and Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. Foley said Shepard and a delegation of Laramie, Wyo., police, who had to furlough officers to help pay for the investigation into her son's killing, had a substantial impact on Hastert and Illinois Republican Henry J. Hyde, the House Judiciary Committee chairman. Still, he recognizes that more education needs to be done.

"Some of my leadership needs to understand that this issue is based on the Lincoln principle that everybody is considered equal. This is a basic fairness issue," Foley said.

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