He looked dazed as he walked off the state Senate floor Feb. 3, as if he were reliving a bad dream and just wanted to wake up.
Sen. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, had been here before. Only a year ago, he’d authored a hate crimes bill that had given judges latitude to stiffen sentences for crimes committed due to the victim’s race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It passed out of a committee 9-1, but was gutted on the Senate floor when his Republican colleagues removed all the categories in favor of the single word “bias.”
Now, Alting had just seen his bill to help pregnant women in the workplace obliterated by his fellow Republicans who turned it into a mere request for a study committee on the issue. Senate Bill 342 would have required most businesses to provide “reasonable accommodations” for pregnant women and new moms — things such as bathroom breaks and a place to pump breast milk for their infants.
Afterward, Alting — his face flushed, his eyes verging on tears — said despondently: “I’m getting used to that.”
He was angered by the reason given for gutting SB 342, that it could hurt small businesses, calling it “bull crap.”
And, he added, “If everything is working so well as my colleagues said up there … I simply ask the question: Why are we third in the nation in losing mothers in our maternal mortality rate? Why are we seventh in the nation (on infant mortality) if everything is working so well?
He was wearing a small pink and blue ribbon as he spoke, a ribbon he’d worn to honor the LGBT community who’d held a Statehouse rally that morning.
“I’m always fighting for rights,” Alting said. “Sadly, and it just really hurts me, not very well. I just haven’t been winning. So, sorry to those people.”
The next day, he urged his colleagues to vote to send SB 342 to the House. Keep the bill alive, he told them, so maybe there will be a study committee, maybe there will be another bill and maybe by next summer there will be a law. But he couldn’t forget the statistics, the ones that predict more mothers and more babies will die before then.
I asked Alting if, even though he isn’t leaving his party, his party has left him.
Seven seconds ticked by. Then he gave a rueful laugh.
“You know, that’s a tough one to publicly say,” Alting said. “It’s a different Senate than it was over 20 years ago when I arrived. Still full of good men and women, but I think the difference is compassion, compassion and compassion.”
Just the prior week, he said, he’d easily passed a bill through the Senate to protect pets from being sold too young and without vaccinations.
“It’s very discouraging to know that I can get through the Indiana General Assembly a right-of-an-animal bill easier than I can get a right-of-a-human bill through.”
He recalled Abraham Lincoln’s words that “government is supposed to do for those who can’t do for themselves.”
“I think we’ve lost track of that in helping minorities and people of disabilities and the less fortunate, women in the workplace, and in making sure we’re not discriminating against lesbians, gays, transgenders,” he said.
Alting recalled his behind-the-scenes efforts last year to convince GOP senators to back the hate crimes bill.
“I felt like LBJ in the 1960s” advocating for the Civil Rights Act, he said.
The more apt analogy, though, may be George Romney — the former Michigan governor and father of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. In 1964, he fought to keep a civil rights plank in the GOP platform. Romney, like Alting, implored the GOP to remember Lincoln and to be the party that stands for those values. Like Alting, he lost that fight.
Alting doubts a more explicit hate crimes bill will ever pass, but is optimistic that next year he’ll be watching a bill to protect pregnant workers become law.
“The facts don’t lie,” Alting said. “It’s pretty serious when legislators turn their heads on deaths, particularly that kind of number where you’re third in the nation. I always tell them you want to be on the right side of history. We had a chance to do it in the bias crimes bill. And this was a no-brainer. We need to do it on this bill.”