Uncovering the Story in Massachusetts

When a governor makes the right decision and an influential columnist weighs in, ASPR’s client receives the benefits.

Baker right to tack left on LGBT rules By Joan Vennochi GLOBE COLUMNIST Good for Governor Charlie Baker for opening up state contracts to businesses owned by lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people. Under a diversity program launched during the Patrick administration, a percentage of state contracts is already set aside for businesses owned by minorities, women, and service-disabled veterans. Under an executive order just signed by Baker, the program will expand to include businesses owned by all veterans and people with disabilities — as well as those owned by the LGBT community. “Why wouldn’t we want to make it easier for all people to do business in Massachusetts?” asked Baker, calling it “the right thing to do.” In Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, it’s also smart and safe politics. For one, Baker gets to show he’s come a long way from 2010, when he referred to then-running mate Richard Tisei as “a gay fella.” When Baker made that remark about Tisei, he was deflecting criticism over his own refusal to support legislation often pejoratively referred to as “the bathroom bill.” It’s an issue that remains controversial today — whether to allow transgender people to choose the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable. Baker is ducking on that, even as Attorney General Maura Healey and other top lawmakers push a bill that would give transgender people the right to be accommodated in public places. Houston voters just defeated such a measure. “The governor has said he will review the bill should it reach his desk,” said spokesman Tim Buckley. “He doesn’t want anyone discriminated against on the basis of gender identity.” Baker’s executive order, meanwhile, drew praise from the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which announced it as a first-in-the-nation statewide initiative to provide “fair and equal access to business-contracting opportunities.” The group, which started lobbying the Baker administration last January, views the policy as an important step in moving the national discussion from marriage equality to economic parity. “Marriage is the starting point, not the finish line,” said Justin G. Nelson, the NGLCC president and cofounder, who stood alongside other activists in the State House when Baker unveiled the new rules. The NGLCC, he said, plans to promote Massachusetts’ policy as a model for other states: “New York, here we come!” The group also hopes to get the Obama administration to implement a similar order for federal procurement contracts. Discriminatory barriers have been falling since the Supreme Court’s decision last June to legalize same-sex marriage across the country. In July, the secretary of defense announced that transgender members of the military will be able to serve openly. That same month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that current federal workplace discrimination protections also apply to sexual orientation. But a backlash is also developing on the economic front, with politicians in states like Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, and Louisiana pushing “religious freedom” proposals that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. Baker’s executive order sends a countermessage of inclusion: that Massachusetts is open for business for all. That it comes from a Republican governor is noteworthy from a national political perspective. But in Massachusetts, there’s nothing strange about it. As a candidate, Baker supported same-sex marriage. He also featured his brother, who is gay, in a campaign Web video. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Baker broke again with much of the national GOP and praised the decision. The issue is “personal” to him, he said at the time. Asked how his executive order might be viewed by fellow Republicans beyond Massachusetts, Baker told me, “I agree with people in my party on some things and disagree with them on others. This should not be a partisan issue.” Of course, when you’re governor, nothing happens in a political vacuum. Healey, the first openly gay candidate elected attorney general, is often mentioned as a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate. She said she isn’t running for that office, but it doesn’t hurt Baker to have friends in the LGBT community. Nelson acknowledged the politics at play for a Republican governor in a liberal-leaning state. Still, he said, “If at the end of the day we have more opportunities, I really don’t care what got us there. I hope there’s a cascading effect with other states and with the federal government.” Before anyone gets too excited about Baker’s order, it does not yet set a benchmark for LGBT-owned businesses. First, they must be certified. Then, once the state determines how many businesses qualify, goals will be set. That will take two to three years, a Baker aide said. So, for the time being, the executive order merely creates an avenue for future opportunity to bid on the $4 billion the state spends each year on goods and services — just around the time Baker should be running for reelection.