On an early September morning I met with a self described dapper chap, who was also one of Multnomah County’s delegates to the Oregon State Republican Convention last year. There he had made national political waves by successfully leading a coalition to strike all anti-gay statements from the Oregon Republican Platform. He arrived to meet me with his mustache waxed upwards, his cap pulled down and a big scab over his eyebrow from a bicycle accident he’d had after his recent performance in a burlesque review.
I asked him why he chose to work to eliminate anti-gay policies from the Oregon GOP’s platform and his response indicated that he considered it was both the right thing to do, and a strong strategic act to move his party – which prides its self on being against government intrusion into people’s lives – toward walking their own talk. In reference to the people in his party who are attached to anti-gay political policies he said, they can go ahead and furrow their brow at whatever they find distasteful, but they should not be legislating against this kind of thing as Conservatives.
He is the kind of person who talks about American history with the familiarity that most people have with only their own life story. For him being a Republican is about upholding what he sees as the long, proud party tradition of supporting equal right under the law using limited government. I told him it was confusing to me that he saw the Republican Party as an agent of equality. He replied by reminding me that the Republican Party’s origins was as organized political opposition to slavery and that they voted more solidly in favor of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 than Democrats. He also pointed out that the Republican Party brought us the first female Hispanic Governor, the first Black Governor and the first woman in Congress. He acknowledged that there are more people of minority groups in the Democratic ranks but was proud that his party had been the political mechanism through which minority politicians had first been able to rise to power and noted that the current Republican party has many prominent minority members in elected office. From having these conversations I am beginning to understand how the idea of equality before the law looks more fair to some conservatives than affirmative action laws, which legislate a form of positive inequality in an effort to overcome historic disadvantages.
He grew up in California with a mixed Mexican-American family and had considered himself to be a progressive Democrat. But since moving to Portland and living within the forest of left leaning people and policies he has swung away towards the Republican party and become very politically active. His temperament also seems to lean a bit toward the contrarian, but in a gracious and good natured way. And while in his cultural life as a performer he has many lefty friends and associates, his profession thrives in a civic landscape with room for wildness and carving one’s own way. He sees Portland’s well intentioned Democratic governance as being disappointingly invested in piling on more burdensome laws and and costs. I asked him about this recurrently sore issue for conservatives: the burden of excessive regulations. I agreed that rules and regulations can make things cumbersome, bureaucratic and expensive but I also wondered aloud, isn’t the reason we have these laws because we’ve seen something go wrong in the past and we learned that we want to avoid having that happen over and over again? He responded by saying not so, sometimes regulations are just “solutions looking for a problem” and explained a recent scenario in Portland where the laws for fire dancing were changed it ways that were unnecessary and almost completely prohibitive of these characteristically Portland performances.
His story was a convincing counter argument to my generalized defense of regulation, but thinking back on it I wish I’d asked him whether he thinks the same way about environmental regulations, because to me there are some problems that we need to try to regulate against before irreparable damage is done, since there is just too much at risk. I know whatever he would to say about this issue would be worth considering and give me new questions to ponder.