Standing Tall for Civil Rights

At first glance, it seems unlikely that a truck-loving, firefighting Republican from rural Anne Arundel County would give the Civil Marriage Protection Act its victory vote, moving same-sex marriage through the House of Delegates and a step closer to law in Maryland.
    Del. Bob Costa goes by the email handle truckkie and drives one of Anne Arundel County’s biggest fire trucks out of the Lothian fire station.
    Costa, 53, is one of eight Republicans in Anne Arundel whom voters have sent to the House of Delegates. The other seven opposed the legislation. Del. Don Dwyer, for one, has made opposition to same-sex marriage his defining issue in the General Assembly.
    One of four Anne Arundel Democrats, Ted Sophocleus, also voted against the legislation.
    So did Costa last year, when virtually the same bill narrowly failed. He was against it again this year, he says, until the 10-hour hearing in the House Health and Government Operations Committee on Valentine’s Day.
    But take a second look, and it isn’t so odd that the former head of the county Republican Party cast the crucial, over-the-top, 71st vote on the controversial bill that passed by a margin of one, with 72 votes.
    It was a logical decision, he says, but not an easy one — nor a safe one.

•   •   •

Bay Weekly    Was your arm twisted to vote for gay marriage?
Costa    I’ve been accused of taking bribes, like a $170,000 job, but the reality is I never spoke to the governor or his staff before the vote on the bill.

Bay Weekly    How about the many people who testified? Did their stories shift your vote?
Costa    The testimony of people from both sides moved me. We had 10 hours of testimony, with 562 people signed up, and you were very happy when it was over. But everybody has a right to be here and to speak. How many times can they say this or that, you ask yourself. It doesn’t matter. They have the right as a citizen to share. And I’m still listening.

Bay Weekly    How about your personal community? Were you moved by the experience of family or friends?
Costa    I have several friends who are gay. There are a lot of homosexuals in our Southern Maryland community, and I know more now than I did two weeks ago [before the phone calls, emails and visitors started coming in].

Bay Weekly    What did make you change your mind?
Costa    I put in a lot of thought on this, in terms of my personal beliefs and my political beliefs. Republicans believe in lesser government and more personal responsibility. You’re an individual, and what you do is your business.
    That’s one part of my thinking.

Bay Weekly    Another part?
Costa    My vote is one of greenest in Maryland. The environment is a big issue in South County, and it’s not a partisan issue. So I ask myself, what’s the benefit to the people I represent?
    An equal law affects all people equally.
    As a policy maker that’s the integrity I should stand up for. It might not be easy, but I wasn’t elected to make easy votes.
    I have a history of supporting homosexual rights. I voted for both the transgender vote and the Medical Decisions Act, so gay couples could go into the emergency room when a partner was injured. They couldn’t before. In some jurisdictions, a gay partner wasn’t even allowed in the ambulance. In Anne Arundel, we’d always say Go on, get in. What did we care who was with who?
    I try to support what’s good for everybody.

Bay Weekly    So that’s what tipped your scale from one year to the next, one day to the next?
Costa    What bothered me so much was how in our current marriage law specifying one man and one woman, government discriminates against a specific group of its citizens. If I had my way, I’d strike the article in the Maryland code that pertains to marriage.
    Maryland fixed the law against interracial marriage in 1967. This is the next step.
    I don’t think government as a matter of public policy should discriminate against any of its citizens. That makes sense to people with common sense.

Bay Weekly    But it doesn’t make sense to many of your fellow Anne Arundel Republicans. Del. Don Dwyer, for example, is a fierce opponent.
Costa    I haven’t spoken to him since the very first day of session. I choose not to share dialogue with somebody so close-minded.

Bay Weekly    And the others? You all work together and have offices in the same corridor? Are you in trouble?
Costa    There’s always some animosity after a hard vote. This was an emotional issue, and a lot of people voted their hearts. Somebody goes against that, some people take it personally. But it’s temporary. There’s a level of professionalism. We move onto the next issue.
    Politics isn’t personal. It never can be. If it’s personal, you don’t have what it takes to be effective.
    It’s not personal, but I’m really bruised right now.

Bay Weekly    A lot of the religious community won’t agree with you, either. Including your own churches. You’re a Baptist, a convert from Catholicism.
Costa    I’m a recovering Baptist. I believe in one Christian church and only one, and all the differences are just doctrine. I’m pretty knowledgeable about the Bible, and I’ll debate a pastor at the drop of a hat.
    Marriage is also a religious ceremony, and this bill protects churches. If you don’t believe in it, don’t participate.
    If Christians believe God is a judge and has his little book keeping track of you, who am I as a legislator to second-guess my belief that God decides?
    I say, trust in God to make the decision — not your local politician.

Bay Weekly    You’re pretty cool, but there’s a lot of feeling and a lot of anger out there. Are you feeling that?
Costa    There have been threats. State Police sat in my driveway for three days. [After the vote], I’d walk out of my house and around my truck to make sure my tires were not slashed.
    A man came beating on my door Thursday at 10pm. I turned on all the spotlights. “Do you have a gun?” I asked. “A big knife?”
    He said, “No. All I have is a Bible.”
    I invited him in. “Please don’t scream,” I said. “My boys are asleep.” We studied the Bible for two hours on my dining room table. 
    Another man camped out at the State House day and night those two days. He’d open the door for me. He got right up in my face.
    “My name is James,” he said. “And I was sent by God.”
    “I’m not laughing,” I told him, “but I was with God two hours last night, and he didn’t tell me you were coming.”

Bay Weekly    Is that still going on?
Costa    It’s safer now. I told the State Police they didn’t need to drive by any more. I said, “I’m fine. I’m a firefighter; I’m not afraid.”

Bay Weekly    Gov. Bob Ehrlich passed the flush tax to help the Bay, but environmental voters didn’t stand by him on election day. Did you consider what this vote might mean on Election Day 2014, when you’ll run in the new District 30B?
Costa    I haven’t decided to run again. I haven’t even thought about it. I’m letting the dust settle.
    So that wasn’t part of my calculations.
    There will be folks who’ll never vote for me again. But at the same time, there’ll be folks who vote Democratic who will cross over, and I may have their vote now.

Bay Weekly    When will same-sex couples be free to marry in Maryland?
Costa    Opponents will get enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in November. It will be up to both sides of the issue to make their case to the voters. We’ll be inundated with television commercials, just like happened in California on Proposition 8, just like on gambling here. Hundreds of thousands of dollars will be spent to try to get the message out. It will be the responsibility of each side to work for or against it.

Editor’s note: The Senate approved the Civil Marriage Protection Act on Feb. 23. Gov. Martin O’Malley has promised to sign it.