Matters of conscience

Senator: As the focal point in a battle over gay rights, a state lawmaker faced political and moral challenges.

March 21, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

When Sen. Leo E. Green is asked about the gay rights bill, the one he gave life to during crucial committee votes this week, he recalls a sign that hung in the basement of his grandfather's rowhouse.

"No Irish Can Apply" is how he remembers the wording. His grandfather, a carpenter who worked aboard a ship to pay his passage from Ireland to Delaware, would point to the sign and tell him that no one should have to suffer that kind of discrimination.

"It left an indelible imprint on me," says Green, a 68-year-old lawyer. "It's been my sort of anchor all my life. My grandfather was 5 foot 1, but he was a giant to me."

Since last summer, Green, a Prince George's Democrat and devout Catholic, has been lobbied more intensely than any other lawmaker about one of the General Assembly's touchiest bills -- and one of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's most fervently desired legislative victories. The bill would add gays and lesbians to the list of groups protected by state law barring discrimination in housing, public lodging and employment.

A similar bill passed the House of Delegates in 1999 but was allowed to die in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which never voted on it. As this year's session wore on, Green, a Senate veteran who has consistently fought for the poor and against abortion and the death penalty, was one of the last undecided members of the panel.

Advocates, believing they had enough votes in the full Senate to pass the bill, considered Green the all-important swing vote on the famously unpredictable committee.

After being inundated by phone calls and e-mails and advocates asking, "Can I see you a second, Senator?" Green finally offered an amendment Monday that allowed him to support the bill without compromising his religious beliefs.

Then, facing a roomful of reporters, television cameras and activists yesterday, he joined five other Democrats in voting to approve the legislation and send it to the Senate floor. Four Republicans voted against it, as did one Democrat, Philip C. Jimeno of Anne Arundel County.

Despite his sometimes loud wardrobe of Kelly green and tartan jackets, Green is a rather shy man, and he hasn't relished being the center of all this feverish strategizing. Lately he's been walking backward and mumbling when he sees a reporter approaching. Although polite once cornered, he pleads, "OK? Enough?"

Frankly, he's just tired of discussing it. "I'm exhausted with the subject," he says.

No wonder. At last count, he had gotten 450 letters and phone messages from constituents -- more correspondence than on any other bill he's handled in his 25 years in the Senate. Last week, his office staff was so overwhelmed they switched the phone to voice-mail.

Free State Justice, a gay rights organization, held two constituent meetings in Prince George's County to figure out how to influence him. They researched who his business friends were, who his religious friends were, what newspapers he read. They organized phone banks and letter-writing campaigns, all aimed at Green. They sent a priest from his parish to talk to him.

"Our goal was to have one of his constituents in his office talking about this bill every week of the session," said the group's executive director, Blake Humphreys. They met that goal.

Opponents of the bill targeted Green as well. The Family Protection Lobby, formerly the Maryland chapter of Moral Majority, set up an automated phone bank with a message to call Green.

Even one of his daughters was lobbying him. He would not reveal her position, but noted that her husband is a fundamentalist Christian.

Green has been in tough political positions before. In the early 1980s, his was a deciding vote on a divisive bill to limit state pensions. His eventual support incited a barrage of criticism from teachers and other public employees. In 1990, he participated in a successful eight-day filibuster on an abortion bill that left lasting bruises on his chamber.

And in 1998, he shepherded through the Senate a complicated and intensely debated bill to change tort law to help the state collect billions of dollars from cigarette manufacturers.

This session, Green tried to lie low while he figured out what to do about the troubling gay rights legislation. He returned people's calls and told them he'd think about it.

As a child of struggling, first-generation Americans, Green grew up with a vital sense of social justice. His father fought for workers' rights, and Green watched him get beaten up for standing his political ground. Union meetings were held in his family's basement, and his father eventually became president of the Wilmington, Del., chapter of the AFL-CIO.

But Green is also Catholic, and his church does not condone homosexuality. In addition, he is an old-school civic leader whose voter base is not exactly radical. He's a district president of the Boy Scouts, an Army veteran, a trustee of the county United Way, a Lion, an Elk, a Knight of Columbus.

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