A New Day in Washington: Sen. Gordon Smith Says Gaffes like Trent Lott's May Have Helped Open Fellow Republicans' Minds about Gay Rights Legislation. (Behind the Headlines)

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Racially insensitive remarks cost Trent Lott his job as U.S. Senate majority leader, but they may have also opened the door for the passage of new civil rights protections, including an expanded hate-crimes law. Pro-gay Republicans, such as Oregon senator Gordon Smith, say passage of a hate-crimes bill would be the best way to prove that Republicans aren't bigots. Even Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), once an opponent of such legislation, now says he is open to it and that he is working with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) on a new, gay-inclusive version of a hate-crimes bill. "If it's written right, I can support it, "Hatch said, noting that passage of the legislation would help gays and other minorities "understand that the government is not going to tolerate such crimes." The Advocate recently sat down with Smith, who has been the bill's biggest supporter in the Senate, to ask him about the chances for hate-crimes legislation and the GOP's evolving relationship with gay constituents.

So what are the chances that a hate-crimes bill will pass this year?

I'm very confident that a hate-crimes bill will pass by a very wide margin in the 108th Congress. In a recent Republican conference I made a pitch to Republican senators that one of the ways we could reach out more broadly to the entire American community is to support hate-crimes legislation. I had probably half a dozen colleagues afterward thank me for my comments and pledge their support when it comes up for a vote. That's real progress.

What changed the senators' minds about the bill?

I think it's the result of many Republican senators being uncomfortable with the box that [critics] narrowly want to prescribe to us. I made the comment that if you want to change your image, you should support hate-crimes legislation, because this is consistent with the civil rights views that the majority of Republicans have.

Democrats, however, say Republicans aren't serious about promoting a civil rights agenda. …