WASHINGTON – Thomas M. Reynolds, a conservative Republican from Clarence who worked his way up to leadership positions in both the Assembly and the House of Representatives, has added an unexpected new line to his résumé:
Gay rights advocate.
Reynolds, who retired from Congress nearly five years ago, has signed on as a lobbyist for the American Unity Fund, a big-money effort to win Republican support for gay rights issues that has also hired former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.
Most immediately, Reynolds and Coleman are working to win passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would ban workplace discrimination against people who are gay, lesbian or transgender.
It’s a bill that’s loathed by the conservative Christian element within the Republican Party, and one that Reynolds voted against in 2007, calling it “a lawyer’s bonanza.”
But that was then, before Reynolds came to believe that a more basic issue of fairness is at stake.
“This is a discrimination issue, and one that we’ve seen Fortune 500 companies actually address,” he said in an interview last week. “This is really about getting the federal government to catch up with it.”
The Senate could catch up as soon as this week. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a series of votes on the bill that is expected to culminate in passage by Thursday.
Reynolds – who has been lobbying senators he knows, as has Coleman – will then turn his attention to the Republican-controlled House. That, he acknowledged, will be a much heavier lift.
“The first thing is to see if it can pass the Senate and then begin kind of an education, which I think is long-term, in the House,” Reynolds said.
Only five Republicans – including New York Reps. Richard L. Hanna of Barneveld and Christopher P. Gibson of Kinderhook – have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, although a spokesman for Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, said last week that he supports it as well.
Reynolds is hoping he can bring many of his former colleagues, as well as newer members of the House, along on the same journey that led him from being a critic of ENDA to being one of its champions.
“I think my position on discrimination as it comes to gays and lesbians has evolved, and I believe the law should be changed, or I wouldn’t represent them on this issue,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds made clear that he had never personally discriminated against gay people. In fact, he said, during his last years in Congress, he employed an openly gay chief of staff, Kirk Fordham. And while serving as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2006, he talked then-Rep. Mark A. Foley into running for re-election – months before it was publicly revealed that the gay Florida Republican had sent inappropriate emails to a teenage House page.
Yet when he had to vote on an earlier version of ENDA in 2007, Reynolds toed the conservative line, worrying that the bill could produce a flurry of frivolous lawsuits.
Since then, though, Reynolds has studied the issue and has found no evidence of a rash of such lawsuits in any of the 21 states – including New York – that ban workplace discrimination against gays.
That being the case, he said, it’s time for a change.
“This is about discrimination in the workplace, and I’m committed to continue working to educate members of Congress and their staffs to take a close look at what this is about,” Reynolds said.
That’s a commitment that those working with Reynolds have already seen.
“Congressman Reynolds has just been a champion in terms of reaching out” on the workplace discrimination issue, said Fred Sainz, vice president of communications at the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization. “He’s not only a former member of Congress, but he’s also the former chair of the NRCC, and that is credibility incarnate. He can have those member-to-member communications,” Sainz said.
Jeff Cook-McCormac, senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, agreed.
“Members of the House know of Tom; they know he’s a responsible Republican committed to good policy,” McCormac said. “He also understands the politics that a lot of them have to take into consideration.”
That doesn’t mean Reynolds will quickly win a lot of converts to the cause. He acknowledged that his lobbying effort will be “a long-term project,” given the reluctance of many Republicans to address the issue.
Rep. Chris Collins, for example, said he remains undecided on the workplace-discrimination bill – but he quickly added that he is deeply worried that the bill would produce the kinds of frivolous lawsuits that have bedeviled friends of his in the business world.
“The minute they’ve terminated an employee for poor performance, they get sued,” said Collins, a Clarence Republican who represents what once was Reynolds’ district. “The typical one today is the discrimination one. When you fire a woman, the lawsuit shows up. You fired her because she was poor-performing, and the lawyers do a money grab.”
Meanwhile, the Christian right worries that even though the bill has a religious exemption, it wouldn’t prevent religious institutions or deeply Christian business owners from being forced to hire people they would rather not.
“We don’t think that any religious exemption can be written that can adequately meet the conscience concerns some employers have,” said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a leading conservative Christian group.
Supporters of the workplace-discrimination bill counter by saying the exemption clearly protects houses of worship, parochial schools and missions that, for religious reasons, would not want to hire gays.
Beyond that, though, the bill is just a matter of fairness – and one that Republicans should gravitate to, said Coleman, the former Minnesota senator.
“We’re the party of Lincoln,” Coleman noted. “Our roots are in anti-discrimination.”
So is the GOP’s future, Coleman added.
“I think this will help us expand the reach of our party,” Coleman said of the effort to pass ENDA.
Coleman remains opposed to gay marriage, and he said he sees no reason why people can’t hold that view for reasons of religion or tradition while favoring a law banning workplace discrimination against gays.
As for Reynolds, he’s now talking the way President Obama did shortly before announcing that, in a change of heart, he now supports gay marriage.
Asked for his current view on the issue, Reynolds said: “I would say that it’s evolving. I still hold the traditional position of marriage being between a man and woman, but I’ve also certainly reflected on it, and will continue.”
All of which is good, Reynolds added.
“I’m 63 years old now,” he said. “I see a lot of things differently as I’ve gone through different passages of life. I’m just pleased that I continue to evolve in life.”