Baker jeered by ‘bathroom bill’ backers demanding a commitment

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BOSTON Gov. Charlie Baker cut short his remarks Wednesday night at a networking event for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people after the crowd began to heckle the governor over his refusal to take a stand on the so-called “bathroom bill” that would assure transgender persons’ access to public facilities such as restrooms based on their sexual identity rather than their anatomy.

“Let me make one thing clear: We should not discriminate against anyone in the commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Baker said at one point during his speech, drawing cheers. But they soon turned to jeers after the governor reiterated his vow to “talk to all parties involved before I make any decisions” on the bill.

Baker’s fence-sitting didn’t sit well with activists in the crowd, many of whom held signs supporting the bill. They shouted down the governor and showered him with boos, as video posted online showed:

“That’s not good enough,” one shouted.

“Give us some commitment,” another said, before the crowd erupted into “sign the bill” chants.

“Let me say one other thing, OK?” Baker continued during a lull in the chants. “Stay with me here I didn’t run for governor to work on the opioid issue. The opioid issue came to me from conversations I had with people as I was campaigning.”

“The most powerful voices in this conversation have been the families and the individuals who’ve reached out to people in the administration and my office and in conversations with me,” Baker said. “Their stories and the bravery that comes with them is compelling, affecting; it’s real and it’s an incredibly important part of understanding.”

Baker continued by saying, “my recommendation to all of you is to continue to have those conversations,” at which point activists in the crowd accused of him not meeting with them. One person could be heard saying, “close the doors to Mass. Family,” an apparent reference to the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, a group that has lobbied hard against the “bathroom bill” and claims its passage could lead to situations in which men dress up as women to gain access to locker rooms and restrooms.

“You all have a good night,” Baker said, signalling his exit from the stage at the Marriott Copley Place hotel amid a roar of Bronx cheers.

The event, billed as the 10th Annual Boston Spirit LGBT Networking Night, was attended by more than 1,000, according to sponsor Boston Spirit magazine, which calls itself the “premier LGBT publication in the Massachusetts and New England area” on its website.

On Thursday morning, Baker told reporters his remarks at the event included a reminder that he was the sole Republican governor to support same-sex marriage when the issue came before the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

“Obviously, in the end, that wasn’t quite what folks wanted to hear, and I respect that,” Baker said. “I went to the event because I believe in and support many of the issues that community cares about, and I’m proud of my record on that.”

Thursday morning also saw Boston Spirit publisher David Zimmerman issue a statement defending the decision to feature Baker, a Republican, at the event. Zimmerman pointed to the governor’s executive order in November that made Massachusetts the first U.S. state to include special provisions for LGBT business owners in contracting opportunities alongside those owned by minorities and women.

“It is an accomplishment that deserved to be recognized I felt as though the largest LGBT professional event in the state was the appropriate place to do that,” Zimmerman said. “The second reason I invited the governor to speak is a bit more controversial.”

“Anyone who has read the news recently has seen what has been happening in North Carolina, Mississippi, and some other southern states,” Zimmerman said. “It is hard to find the words to describe how disgusting, hurtful, and dangerous these so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills are.”

On Beacon Hill, Zimmerman said, the measure at issue is “sitting on Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s desk,” referring the the leader of the House of Representatives, a Democrat from Winthrop.

On the publication’s page, that sentiment was more bluntly put in a comment. After the magazine posted a link to a story about Deutsche Bank’s opposition to a North Carolina law that negated a Charlotte ordinance regarding access to restrooms for transgender people, a comment said: “I still can’t believe he (Baker) is being honored at the same time he is single-handedly holding up the (transgender access) bill.”  

“He is not being ‘honored’ at our event,” the magazine responded. “He is speaking to an audience that has been asking him to step forward and comment for months.”

“He is also not ‘single handedly’ holding up the bill,” the publication said in its response to the comment. “Speaker DeLeo has refused to advance the bill for a vote.”

On Wednesday, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg told a business group that he plans to bring the “bathroom bill” to a debate in the Legislature’s upper chamber in either May or June. The bill is currently sitting in the Judiciary Committee.

Zimmerman said he is “disappointed” Baker did not use Wednesday night’s event to “as an opportunity to advance the discussion” on the measure and “instead chose to speak, at length, about improvements in the state’s transit system and his accomplishments with regard to the opioid crisis.”

The publisher added that he had made it clear in the days leading up to the event that the “conversation surrounding the Public Accommodations Bill would need to be a priority in the governor’s remarks.”

“It was also made clear that repeating the same message that has been repeated for months would not satisfy the crowd at this particular event,” Zimmerman said, referring to Baker’s oft repeated response when queried that he would review the bill, should it reach his desk, and make a decision then.

Prior to the event I was firm in my conviction that inviting the governor to meet and speak to the LGBT community was the right thing to do,” the publisher said. “Looking back, I remain just as firm in my conviction that it was the right thing to do.”

Wednesday’s incident marked the latest instance in which Baker has felt a backlash from activists on the issue. Last week, after media reports that he was set to speak at a conservative conference alongside a controversial pastor opposed to same-sex marriage, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce dropped a plan to honor the governor at its April 26 “Best-of-the-Best” celebration.

U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, a Brookline Democrat, had reportedly told the national group that he would boycott the event unless Baker changed his noncommittal stance on the Massachusetts bill.

The State House News Service also reported Thursday that one of the bill’s sponsors, state Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), said she hasn’t heard from Baker’s staff about any questions or concerns the governor may have regarding the bill.

Provost also commented on the fact the bill has been stuck in committee, which faces a May 2 deadline to issue a report on the measure to the full Senate. The date falls one day before candidates, including incumbents, looking to run for seats in the Legislature must file nomination papers.

“Probably the kind of political accommodation that we might necessarily expect,” Provost told the news service. “If a vote on the bill is delayed until after such time as members know whether or not they have an opponent, for some members that might make life easier.”