Yes, it has come to this.
Republicans in California have come up with a new way to get their voters to the polls in what appears to be an otherwise somnolent 2014: Get them excited about which restrooms transgender students should be allowed to use.
“Right has hopes up for a new hot issue,” proclaimed the San Francisco Chronicle on January 6. “Transgender-student fight seen as energizing the base.”
Higher taxes? Lower taxes? Fracking? Huge tunnels to move water around the Delta? High-speed rail? Never mind. Let’s energize the base with something elemental.
The right is hoping to get an initiative on the November ballot that would upend the “School Success and Opportunity Act,” signed into law in October by Gov. Jerry Brown. It allows students to use restrooms and locker rooms in accord with their own gender self-identity.
If a student is born with apparent male physical characteristics, for instance, but consistently and exclusively feels female internally, the student would be allowed to use the girls’ restroom. San Francisco and Los Angeles school districts have had similar rules for years.
The Privacy for All Students campaign wants no part of it. They say, disparagingly, that the new law allows students to use “… intimate school facilities such as showers, rest rooms and locker rooms based on their so-called gender identity and not their actual sex.” The California Republican Party wants to overturn the law as well. They see an initiative fight as useful for firing up right-wingers who might otherwise be discouraged and lethargic.
“This could get voters who wouldn’t get out on other issues, but will for this,” said Karen England, a conservative activist who is co-chair of the initiative effort.
It may be a new issue that is far afield from what used to be the customary arena of political battle, but it’s part of a time-honored California political tactic: Get your folks riled up about something, see if you can get it on the ballot via an initiative of some sort, and then pray that your concerned citizens will swarm to the polls to do the “right” thing — and vote for your guy while they’re at it.
“How long have guys been trying to get into the girls bathroom?” England asked the Chronicle’s estimable Joe Garofoli. “Now they just have to assert that they were the opposite gender and they get access.”
Huckabee told a conservative audience last October that if the law had been in effect when he was in high school, “… I’m pretty sure that every boy in my high school would have suddenly felt that he was just a little more comfortable showering with the girls, no matter how uncomfortable the girls might have been with it.”
The fact that Huckabee, a Fox News commentator, has already weighed in increases speculation that the issue might go national, adding another chapter to the nation’s ongoing culture wars. It would not be the first time the California led the way to Sodom, in the view of cultural conservatives across the nation who deplore “San Francisco values.”
And so it goes. Whether England and her allies will ultimately be successful in getting their initiative on the ballot is an open question. They need at least 555,236 valid signatures. (It appeared last week that the initial drive to qualify a measure had fallen short or maybe not.)
One thing is for sure: For those among us who fret that California has been settling into a boring trough of conventional politics, help is on the way.
Chuck McFadden covered politics for The Associated Press in Sacramento. His biography of our very own governor, Trailblazer: A Biography of Jerry Brown is out from the University of California Press. Read here for more on the transgender teen pictured above.