Eric shakes his head without looking up. “Could be anything.”
Whitehead frowns, his furrowed cheeks gathering around pursed lips. “I don’t like it. If the speaker of the assembly wants to talk to me, she should at least tell me what it’s about. We shouldn’t put up with it.”
“We need eight more votes for the tax cut. We’re not going to get them from within our party. All of them are already behind us. So we’re going to need the speaker.”
“Eight votes short? You sure?”
Eric looks up, a grim expression on his round face. “I’m sure. The staff has been calling house members all week. No one’s budging unless the speaker tells them to.
Whitehead’s secretary’s face can be seen now through the adjoining door. “Governor, the speaker of the assembly is here.”
Whitehead rolls his eyes upward and sighs. “You can send her in.” He looks toward Eric with trepidation.
“We need the votes,” Eric reminds the governor.
Speaker Pinckney is tall and thin, wearing a beige suit and wire rimmed glasses giving her a gentle impression that belies her toughness. She’s been speaker of the assembly for more than a decade in a state where her party doesn’t usually have a majority.
“Governor, it’s a pleasure,” she says, shaking Whitehead’s hand, though her tone isn’t enthusiastic. She sits on the couch opposite Eric.
Whitehead is about to ask why she’s here, but it’s unnecessary. Speaker Pinckney gets right to the point.
“The transgender rights bill we sent over for review,” she says. “All our neighbors have passed one. It’s still legal in our state to put someone out into the street because they’re transgender, or refuse to fill their gas tank. It’s medieval. We’ll be introducing the transgender rights bill this week. Can we count on you not to veto it?”
Whitehead looks over at Eric. “Will this hurt us with our base?”
Eric shakes his head. “No one’s going to come out publicly and argue against human rights. If you’re out in front with this, the party will fall in line.”
Whitehead looks back toward the speaker. “How many votes you think you can get us on the tax cut?”
Pinckney looks annoyed. “We’re talking transgender rights, not the tax cut.”
“Now we’re talking about both. How many votes can you get me?”
Pinckney’s voice is exasperated. “None. The tax cut is dead. We already can’t meet our commitments with the money we have. It’s not the right time to bring in even less.”
“By that logic, it would never be the right time. The legislature always wants to spend more than it has. The only way to reign you folks in is by taking away money. Otherwise, nothing ever gets cut.”
Pinckney shakes her head. “Our spending is pretty threadbare. Most members of the house think so. There’s no way I’m going to convince any of them to support the tax cut. It’s a waste of time even to discuss it. Our state has real problems, and transgender rights is one of them. It’s easy to fix, and we’re going to do our job by fixing it. When we pass a bill, can we count on you not to veto it? You don’t have to sign, just don’t veto.”
“Because you don’t have the votes to override?”
For the first time Pinckney seems less sure of herself. She shakes her head, a side-to-side movement so slight as nearly to be imperceptible.
Whitehead is emboldened. “If it’s so vital, if it’s so important, how come everyone isn’t for it. How come you don’t easily have the votes?”
“You know the answer to that, Governor. It’s because members of your own party wouldn’t cross you. But our state should not stand for discrimination. Our neighboring states have moved quickly on this. How does it looks that we’re the only place around where transgender people don’t have rights? It’s the right thing to do. People in this state shouldn’t have to fear being evicted for who they are. Don’t you agree?”
“The voters put me here to shrink their tax burden. That’s my priority. If you can’t help me with that, then I’d need to redouble our efforts. I’m afraid I couldn’t waste political good will on your rights bill. It’s a case of limited resources. I’d have to veto.”
Pinckney stands. “Governor, I’m sorry we couldn’t work together on this. I don’t want to put you in position to have to veto this, but our state needs a transgender rights bill. I’m not going to stand in it’s way.
Whitehead shakes Pinckney’s hand. “Think about trying to get votes together for the tax cut,” he says.
Pinckney leaves without replying to Whitehead’s final remark.
With the speaker safely gone, the governor looks toward Eric who is feverishly writing on his notepad. “We did our best. Might have a better chance next year when everyone’s running for reelection.”
“It’ll turn out okay,” Eric tells him. We’ll have Grant at the Times-Star report that the speaker met with you but refused to help you with the tax cut. Grant has it in for Pinckney. He’ll be thrilled to do it. You’ll come out looking pretty good.”
For the first time since the speaker’s arrival, Whitehead smiles. “You are truly amazing. I’m lucky to have one of the best aides in the business. Don’t know what I’d do without you.
Eric tears off the top sheet of his notepad and hands it to Whitehead. “Looks like you’re going to find out.”
The governor looks at the handwritten sheet uncomprehending. “What’s this?”
“Huh?” He reads it carefully, and looks up.
“Is this about money? I could talk to the comptroller about getting you a raise, but I’m not optimistic. You know how tight things are.”
“It’s not about money, sir.”
“You’re really resigning? After all this time. You’ve been with me for twelve years, since my first campaign. What’s this about?”
“It’s about what just happened here. You’re willing to sacrifice the rights of the people in your state if you don’t get your way. There are people who are being thrown out of their houses. You really don’t care?”
The governor seats himself at the other end of the couch Eric had occupied. “Sit, please. Let’s talk about this. We’ve done political horse trading for decades. Why does it suddenly bother you?”
Eric looks the Governor in the eyes. “Yes. We’ve bargained. A bridge for Washington County in exchange for a new school in Liberty County. A highway here to smooth the way for a shopping mall there. But this is the first time you’ve been willing play the game with people’s lives and their rights.”
“Is this really about whether those people get rights?”
“Come on. We’re talking about a fringe population. A few eccentrics who don’t want to dress like everyone else, and want all of us to to go along with them. That old guy in the park who wears those floppy sun hats and hoop earrings. I’m supposed to spend political capital to sacrifice the economic well being of this state for him?”
“Not all transgender people are homeless. Most have jobs, homes, and families like anyone else.”
Whitehead tosses his head dismissively. “How come the ones I’ve come across all are unhappy and down on their luck.”
“Maybe because those stand out. Those who can afford it, they can blend in. These aren’t people who just want to rebel. They’re wired to be a different gender from their sex at birth. In all other ways they’re like anyone else. You might live next door to one and not know it. You might have been working with a transgender person for years and have no idea.”
“You feel this strongly?”
“Imagine what it would be like suddenly to be evicted because your landlord found out you transitioned from one sex to the other many years ago. How would that feel?”
“You’re willing to give up your career for this?”
“Not my career, just my job. My contributions to your success are well known. I know I could find a job working with any number of up-and-coming politicians. I’ve always believed in you, sir, and the things you stand for. Until today. Until you were willing to let people suffer. You’re not the man I thought you were.”
Whitehead opens his mouth to speak, but then closes it again. He looks at Eric, his long time aide. He has disagreed with him many times in the past, but mostly about strategy and tactics. This is the first time his aide criticized his character. This makes him think.
Abruptly he stands and moves behind his desk to pick up his phone. “I hope I really am who you thought I was.” He punches a button on the phone. “Mrs. Albritton, could you call the speaker’s office and see if we can get her on the line?”
Once off the phone, he looks back at Eric. “I’m going to tell her she can count on my support for the rights bill. Do you still feel you need to resign?”
“Were you serious about talking to the comptroller about a raise?” he answers back.
The governor can’t help but crack a faint smile. “I should have figured this is going to cost me.” He sits down behind his desk absentmindedly staring into space, deep in thought. After a few seconds he snaps back to awareness with a surprised expression, as if learning the answer to a question that has been puzzling him
He looks directly at Eric. “You could work with someone for many years and never know, huh?”