A potent partnership.
The U.S. Senate's approval of legislation banning workplace discrimination against gays was a rare example of how Congress can be productive, with Oregonians playing leading roles. The bill passed 64-32, with 10 Republicans in support. Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and led the fight for it in the Senate - with the powerful assistance of the man he defeated in 2008, former Sen. Gordon Smith.
Merkley, a Democrat, inherited sponsorship of the anti-discrimination bill from the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy worked with Smith, a Republican, on efforts to pass legislation criminalizing hate crimes against gay people.
Smith became president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters after losing his Senate seat to Merkley, and retains influence in Congress. He's particularly influential with fellow members of the Mormon Church. Last year Smith was called to the priesthood office of Seventy within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a position that confers authority to his preaching and interpretation of the Mormon gospel.
Five of the Senate's seven Mormons ultimately supported the anti-discrimination act, including three of the five who are Republicans. Most notably, Orrin Hatch, a Republican who has represented Utah in the Senate since 1977, shifted his vote after opposing earlier versions of the act. Merkley enlisted Smith's support in persuading Hatch and other Mormons to support the bill. "He can speak from a perspective I might not be able to replicate," Merkley said of his one-time rival.
Merkley was widely credited with winning 10 Republican votes for the bill, and rightly so. It was a rare bipartisan achievement in the Senate, and it came on an issue that remains divisive. But Smith's role is notable as well, not only because it reveals shifting attitudes within the Mormon Church but because he was willing to form common cause with his successor. In Oregon, at least, people who oppose each other one day can work together the next, offering a model of comity while obtaining positive results.