The top Republican in the New Hampshire House says he fears long-term harm if New Hampshire joins twenty other states – including Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine – in extending non-discrimination protections in housing, employment and public accommodations to people who are transgender.
House Speaker Shawn Jasper has served 12 terms in Concord. He’s seen divisive issues come and go. But for him, personally, transgender rights, ranks at the very top.
“There are honestly few bills that have concerned me as much in my time here, and I could talk to you for a half an hour about all the concerns I have," he said.
Jasper didn’t have a half hour, but the short version boils down to this scenario: He’s waiting for his wife or daughter as they use a public bathroom, and a transgender person makes a move towards the bathroom door:
“That person, under this law, they would have the right to say, ‘Hey, I have a right to go in there, I’m going in there,’ " Jasper said. "The natural instinct is to say, ‘No, you are not.’ Ultimately, the person who stops somebody from going in there and trying to protect his family, is going to be the one who is going to be charged. I think that's wrong.”
For the backers of this bill, such scenarios are familiar, and far-fetched. Hart’s Location Democrat Ed Butler is the proposal’s lead sponsor:
"I think people are looking for excuses instead of trying to protect people who need protection."
With Democrats squarely behind the bill, the measure's fate really rests with Republicans. The bill won the backing of a GOP-led committee last month by a 15-2 vote.
But at least one lawmaker who supported the bill in committee, Jess Edwards of Auburn, has changed his mind. He says there is what he called “some morality” behind the bill, but scant data to prove that transgender people are being improperly treated in New Hampshire.
“New Hampshire does not discriminate," Edwards said. "We have a constitution that says we don’t and we have a commission on human rights that has heard just one case in 30 years. So there is just no evidence.”
But there is plenty of evidence of intense lobbying on both sides.
"I’ve got probably 1500 emails," says Londonderry Republican Al Baldasaro, who says no amount of lobbying could convince him this bill, which he considers “anti-family” would do New Hampshire any good.
But, he says, the fight over this bill among Republicans is proof the party – at least in the House – has a real divide.
"I think with the libertarians, and for them anything goes, and this is the libertarian mentality," Baldasaro said. "And it’s a shame. Anything goes with them, and those are really the only ones that are supporting it."
Given the numbers in the House, it would only take 20 to 25 Republican votes to pass this bill. One sign Speaker Jasper sees that as a real possibility is his decision to push his caucus to vote to table the bill rather than try to kill it outright.
As Jasper well knows, it was also a couple of dozen Republicans who decided another emotional debate in the House last month, on Right to Work legislation.
Jasper couldn’t deliver the House on that one, but it was a fight he seemed less keen on waging. This time, he’s leading the charge, and hoping that will make the difference.