Advocates of extending civil rights protections to gays and lesbians are getting a big boost from the author of the Idaho Human Rights Act, former Republican Gov. Phil Batt.
Batt endorsed the “Add the Words ” campaign to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the Act’s prohibition of discrimination based on race, gender, color, religion, national origin and disability.
“A homosexual who can’t rent a room or get a job because of his orientation doesn’t make any sense to anybody,” Batt said Tuesday as he became the first recipient of the Idaho Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the Human Rights Commission in Caldwell. “Why some of the politicians are not more sensitive than that — more sensible, I should say than that — beats me.”
Batt also said the lawmakers’ refusal to amend the Human Rights Act in the 2013 session “accomplished absolutely nothing…except to be made to look like fools.”
A farmer from Canyon County, Batt is among the most popular politicians of the 20th century. He spent 16 years in the Legislature, including a term as Senate president pro tem, and was lieutenant governor from 1979-83. In 1994, he was elected governor, ending 24 years of Democratic control of the governorship.
Among his civil rights achievements are mandating toilets in farm fields and creating the Human Rights Commission in the 1960s. As governor, he helped establish a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday and extended workers compensation insurance to farmworkers.
The campaign to amend the Human Rights Act is eight years old. In 2012, the Senate State Affairs Committee refused to print a bill brought by then-Democratic Leader Edgar Malapeai, prompting the lawmaker to fight back tears. In 2013, the same committee held an informational hearing but did not take up any legislation.
Time, cultural change and the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act may be softening Republican resistance. After the March hearing, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said, “I don’t know that it’s going to lead to something next year or down the road. I do think it’s healthy to gain an understanding and appreciation of one another.”
Batt’s comments on Add the Words were first reported in Friday’s Lewiston Tribune by editorial page editor Marty Trillhaase, relying a transcript provided by the commission’s executive director, Pam Parks.
Batt told me Friday that he chose the venue in hopes of influencing the 2014 Legislature. “Yes, I planned it ahead of time. It’s just something that needs to be said.”
Parks wouldn’t comment on the political impact of Batt’s remarks, but said, “We gave him the award and he demonstrated why he deserved it.”
In accepting the award, Batt, 86, recalled that his father was born about 20 years after the Civil War. When Batt was born, in 1927, the Emancipation Proclamation was just 64 years old. “It’s interesting to think about how recently these things occurred,” Batt said. “We have made marvelous steps forward since then.”
He recounted his experience as an 18-year-old private in Army basic training in Biloxi, Miss. “I was appalled at what I saw of the treatment of blacks down there. Walk down the sidewalks and blacks would move off into the gutter because that was what they were expected to do.”
Though Idaho had few African-Americans, Batt recalled “No Mexicans Allowed,” posted by businesses. He resigned from the Elks Club over a whites-only policy, after the club refused to let his Japanese American friend and business partner Kay Inouye join him at dinner. After the club lifted the rule, Batt re-applied but 14 members black-balled him. “That set a record,” he said.
While recognizing President Obama’s dedication to civil rights, Batt criticized his reaction to the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African-American, as Gates was trying to enter his home. Some called the disorderly conduct arrest — which was quickly dropped — racial profiling. Obama said Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley “acted stupidly.”
“I don’t think that kind of thing should have been brought out by the president,” Batt said. Obama later said he regretted his rush to judgment and hosted a “beer summit” at the White House with Gates and Crowley.
Batt also knocked 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney for his call for people living in the U.S. illegally to return to their home countries and wait in line to re-enter. “Totally impractical,” Batt said, noting that the GOP got about 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. “I think we kind of deserve to be put down when we are not more sensitive than that.”
But don’t expect Batt to become a regular at “Add the Words” rallies. As an elected official, he set a standard for brevity in public remarks. Asked if he planned add to what he said Tuesday, he replied, “I don’t think it’s my job to go any further with it. I made a definitive statement.”