24 Apr

Over three decades, a different Oregon for civil liberties

In the beginning of 1993, when David Fidanque became state director of the Oregon ACLU, he didn’t have to look hard for things to do.

Oregon had just defeated, in a struggle drawing international attention, a ballot measure declaring the state officially opposed to homosexuality. In the rest of the decade, Oregon voters would face more anti-gay statewide measures from the Oregon Citizens Alliance, and more than 40 similar local ballot measures. Many of them passed, if sometimes not by enough; a Gresham measure won a big majority, but fell short of the 60 percent needed for a charter amendment.

It wasn’t what you’d call a resounding victory, but as Fidanque recalls, “We had to take what we could get that year.”

Last month, when Fidanque retired – toasted by current and past governors at the annual ACLU banquet – it was in an Oregon where same-sex marriage is now legal. As he puts it, looking back, “It’s astonishing that the nation is now on the cusp of being a gay-marriage nation.”

The OCA – or anyone else living in Oregon in 1993 – might have had trouble believing it.

As ACLU state director, and as Eugene director for a decade before, Fidanque has worked on rights issues from adult bookstores in the 1980s to the no-fly list today, lobbying the legislature, recruiting and working with attorney volunteers, becoming a national ACLU presence. Partly due to his efforts, Oregonians no longer face property forfeiture without a criminal conviction, and Oregon police no longer use stop-everybody roadblocks to check for drunken drivers.

(Full disclosure: Long ago, in a galaxy far away, David Fidanque and I went to high school together, although neither of us go back for Homecoming.)

Over three decades, he’s worked with, and argued with, a parade of state leaders, a list topped by Gov. Barbara Roberts, who “always felt civil liberties issues in her heart and her gut.”

From early in his time, “I give (Gov. Vic) Atiyeh a lot of credit. He would always meet with us even when he disagreed. There were governors who didn’t have the time to meet when they knew they couldn’t say yes.”

Not always voluntarily, Fidanque has spent much of his efforts on gay rights issues. It took 16 years from the first introduction of a hate crimes bill for the legislature to pass one, in 1989. Even then, he remembers, House Speaker Vera Katz didn’t want then bill to come to the floor, because it didn’t have a locked-down majority.

But it was, Fidanque says, “one of the rare occasions when members actually listened to the debate,” and it won a narrow victory with some unpredicted conservative Republican votes.

Twenty years later, when the debate had gotten to same-sex marriage, it took another adjustment. Focus groups run by Portland pollster Lisa Grove in 2010 and 2011, he noted, pointed the case in a different direction.

“We thought of it as a civil rights moment,” Fidanque recalled, “but when swing voters were asked what’s important to you, it was all about love and commitment.

“We were talking right past people, telling them gay couples were different, that they didn’t care about love but about their legal rights.”

In 2012, for the first time, supporters of same-sex marriage won state elections, in four contests from Maryland to Washington. This time, the argument was a little different: “It was talking to people’s hearts.”
Other conversations have been tougher.

“Why has so much changed on discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Fidanque wonders, “but so little changed on discrimination based on race?”

Racial issues – about African Americans, Hispanics and increasingly Muslims – have been a persistent Oregon ACLU theme, from police profiling for traffic stops to disproportionate school suspensions.

About the difference between gay issues and racial issues, “My gut feeling is that it’s similar to Vietnam and the draft. It’s about class. There are LGBT people in rich families, in middle-class families.”

To Fidanque, it’s a different situation in a society, and a state, where racial groups are often largely separate – in different neighborhoods, in different schools, sometimes in different classrooms within schools.

“Part of what, for those of us in the majority culture, makes it so easy to live in Oregon, to love Oregon, makes it so hard for people of color. It’s not something that will go away in a generation, the way we’ve been victorious on same-sex marriage.”

On the other hand, the issue does remind us how much can change over a generation.

Or over a career.

This column appeared in The Oregonian, 4/22/15.