You’re a freshman in a legislature, recently (miraculously) elected to represent a district with values significantly opposite to your own. A contentious culture war issue comes before you. You want to vote one way; your constituents will surely want you to vote another. It’s not even a question: your staff gets hundreds of calls per day, begging you to vote against your conscience. You’re likely to be the tie-breaking vote, or — if not the tie-breaker — an influence on your peers, seeking political cover from a moderate’s vote.
The Speaker calls your name. What do you do? Vote your conscience, or vote for your constituents? I imagine those two choices have two justifications each.
- Vote your conscience. It’s what you believe, and you know it’s the right thing to do.
- Vote your conscience. It’s what you believe, and if you don’t, you’re facing a primary challenge that has a 30% chance to unseat you.
- Vote your constituents. It’s not what you believe, but your constituents will destroy you, and, for whatever reason, you don’t want to lose your seat.
- Vote your constituents. It’s not what you believe, but you didn’t run to substitute your judgment for that of your constituents. You ran to faithfully represent their interests — even when that means betraying your conscience.
This question, apparently, is what Senator Joe Addabbo, a Queens Democrat, faced during Wednesday’s gay marriage vote. As it turns out, he was the first Democrat on the Senate rolls to vote “no.” And, if we’re to believe his recent interviews, he chose option #4, becoming a noble proxy for his constituents.
If that’s true — and not cover for the more opportunistic, tricky option #3 — I don’t think we can disagree with him. The relationship between a legislator and his constituents, and therefore his personal understanding of representative democracy, is a matter for the legislator to decide, and option #4 is frankly respectable. Senator Addabbo is a good man who does a lot of good work, and probably deserves the benefit of the doubt. But he shouldn’t take it personally, if and when that translates into a primary challenge.