Senator George Leland's pro-life bill seems headed for passage when he gains an unsought ally from across the aisle. But has she counted the cost?
“Senator, that new girl from the majority staff wants a moment with you. The tall black girl, Susan.”
George Leland looked up from the speech notes he was jotting on his iPad and frowned. The clock on the wall was just striking eleven. Less than an hour until he was due at the Martin Luther King Day luncheon, and the capitol wasn’t as deserted on this holiday as he had counted on.
Leland shrugged and sighed. “Okay, send her in,” he told his aide. “But if she’s not gone in ten minutes, come in and rescue me. I have to finish this prep.”
The visitor wore a dark blue pantsuit and white blouse, silver charm bracelet, no rings, hair very curly and very short. She carried herself like an athlete, Leland thought, and must be about 6 feet. Had a couple inches on him. Looked about 25.
“Miss Washington, good to see you. Please sit down. What brings you over to the minority corridor on this special day?”
“Well, not what you might expect, sir.” She hesitated for one beat, two beats, and shifted in her chair. “Senator Martin wanted to find out a little more about your fetal pain bill, SB-78. He’s at home in the district today, so I’m the intermediary at this point.” Another pause. “If that’s okay,” she added, looking down nervously.
George Leland, a member of the Covenant Party and still in his first term from a suburban district on the west edge of Hamilton, the state capital, had never been close with Bill Martin, majority leader for the ruling Service Party who had represented an ag and mining community 150 miles north of Hamilton for what, three terms now, or it might be four.
Martin was revered, and feared, on both sides of the aisle as a master of legislative tactics, but the taciturn farmer always seen in the same rumpled brown suit had few close friends in either party.
He kept his counsel and always knew where his votes were, did old Bill Martin. And what an odd match with this elegant, polished young African-American woman who had joined his staff just three weeks ago, right before the session opened, Leland reflected. Where on earth was this going to lead?
“Come over here to the conference table and I’ll walk you through the bill,” said George, reaching in his file drawer. The ten minutes he had allocated passed quickly as the Covenant Party senator learned to his astonishment that the Service Party staffer had come to explore a possible bipartisan cosponsorship for this year’s signature pro-life proposal.
Senate Bill 78 would follow Utah’s 2016 precedent by requiring abortion clinics to provide anesthesia before terminating a woman’s pregnancy at or beyond the 20-week point, the stage of gestation at which research has established that the unborn child can sense pain.
The Covenanters, with their religious voting base and their objection to Roe v. Wade as bad constitutional law, had favored such a measure for years, but the Servicers’ liberal feminist allies had always blocked it. Now here was this unlikely emissary, Susan Washington, bringing word that 2017 might be different. It seemed to Senator Leland that his aide was shouting from a vast distance when Mike quietly interrupted them to call time.
“Susan, I am very glad you came, and please tell the Majority Leader I’m eager to pursue this with him soon. Best wishes for the King holiday, I should add. Hope you’re off the rest of the day.”
“Yes, sir, thank you, I am.” Again that momentary hesitation. “I am and I need to be,” she said with a catch in her voice, her eyes suddenly brimming with tears. Then she was out the door with long, determined strides, leaving the two men looking quizzically at each other.
“See if you can get Karen Cooley on the phone for me, Mike,” Leland asked. He had learned in his first month down here that former members who had turned lobbyists often knew the inner workings of the place better than any incumbent. Karen’s unusual resume as a two-term House member with the Servicer progressives, but now lobbying for the constitutional conservative Veritas Institute, gave her an especially broad range of sources under the dome. Maybe she could help him unravel this thing.
Before the aide could report back, a vibration in George’s hip pocket signaled a text coming in. “Hot rumor. Ring me soonest. BP,” it read.
Blake Peters had been covering the legislature for the Hamilton Herald since Bill Clinton’s time. Peters was fair, he was wicked funny, he leaned somewhat right against the paper’s awful leftward tilt, and he was even better sourced than the lobby. Leland closed his office door, locked it, and quickly rang the reporter back. Twenty minutes until the luncheon was to start, a block away at the Astor Hotel. Have to wing the darn speech, he thought; no sweat, he could do that.
“Thanks for the call back, George. Are you sitting down?”
“Never in your presence, Blake. Rigid attention always. So hit me. What you got?”
“A little bird told me you’re in discussions with Billy Boy Martin about him signing onto the fetal pain bill. Amazing. Next it will be peace breaking out in the Middle East. Confirm or deny, Senator?”
“No comment, amigo. Nice try but no cigar this time.”
“Another little bird told me Martin sent that attractive basketball star to broach this with you only minutes ago. Hard to keep secrets under that big echoing dome, George.”
“If you mean Susan Washington, it’s true she stopped in. I think she and Mike are starting early on the March Madness bracket pool.”
“Nice try to you, Georgie. She came with SB-78 on her mind, and she’s actually the key to Martin’s whole turnaround. This woman’s story is going to stand the race issue and the abortion issue in this state completely on their head, and win my paper a Pulitzer. So come on, at least admit you met with her.”
“I’m lost, Blake. It makes me wonder what you’re smoking. Chase the story and knock yourself out. I’ll just say again: No comment.”
Leland was so distracted with the Washington matter that he felt only half there during the King Day luncheon, but it went all right. Four hundred guests packed the hotel ballroom, a who’s who of the state’s leaders in business, government, philanthropy, and media. He was seated at a table with mostly black and Latino educators whom he had gotten to know while carrying the previous year’s charter school bill. His little talk, one of several by various elected officials, drew polite applause from the overwhelmingly liberal crowd.
Outside on snow-rutted Grand Avenue in the chilly sunshine, checking his phone, the lawmaker was glad to find a voicemail from Karen Cooley. Salt-of-the-earth Karen. A Wheaton graduate like himself, an Army veteran and small-business entrepreneur prior to her time in the House, she was about his daughter’s age, early 30’s now. They had become warm friends in a Bible study during her final two years, his first two, in the legislature.
How a believer like Karen ended up in the largely godless Service Party, George couldn’t fathom, but that made it all the smarter for Veritas Institute to retain her as a lobbyist. She put a likable face – and a ton of Irish-Italian moxie – on the think tank’s claim of bridging the partisan divide.
A breeze had come up. He cupped his hand around the phone and skirted an icy patch of sidewalk. “Karen, hi, it’s George calling back. Sorry for the phone tag. I think you’ve met Bill Martin’s new policy director, Susan Washington. She approached me this morning about him helping with SB-78. But the Herald thinks there’s a personal angle on her part, and I’m concerned it could all blow up. Torpedo the bill for yet another year. Could you nose around and let me know what you learn? And say a prayer while you’re at it? Thanks so much, friend.”
The Veritas building was a classic old mansion from the 1890s on a quiet residential street near Capitol Hill. Arriving for the 4:30 meeting Karen had hastily arranged with Susan Washington, Senator Leland parked in the alley by a dumpster and entered by the back door as he had been instructed. It felt like a spy movie, but after one brush with the snoopy press already today, best take no chances.
Awaiting him in the sparsely furnished conference room were Karen, Susan, and – to George’s surprise – the black pastor who had led prayer at the luncheon earlier.
“Senator Leland, thanks for coming,” the lobbyist began. “Coffee and pop are over there. Take this seat at the head of the table, please. I think you know Steve Brown of Grace Baptist Church.”
Brown stood and enveloped Leland in a bear hug, saying in a rich baritone, “George, brother, how are you?” Then, explaining to the women: “Brown and Leland were classmates at Denver Seminary long ago, before moving back here from Colorado. Then in George’s pastor days we were fellow troublemakers in the Ministerial Association, until he turned his troublemaking talents to politics.”
Leland grinned impishly: “Guilty as charged.”
“Waiting for you, Senator, Miss Washington was telling us some war stories you might be interested in,” Karen said. “Finish that up before we come to the main topic, why don’t you, Susan.”
“‘War’ might be overstating it,” the young staffer replied, raising one eyebrow, “but there’s a pretty violent clash of ideas among African-American millennials. Many in my generation want no part of Dr. King’s vision for the races in America, rooted in the Gospel.”
Steve Brown groaned softly and shook his head. “Pastor, it’s true. They prefer the black separatism of Malcolm X. All that bitterness and anger. Nation of Islam stuff. Saturday night at a bar, one of them started in on me about my name. How could my family stand to share the name of a slave-owning president, the father of a slave-owning country? The guy really got in my face.”
She fought for composure. The room was silent. Brown put his hand on her shoulder. Finally Leland spoke up. “What did you tell him?”
Her big eyes flashed with anger as the emotion subsided. “Oh, I get that a lot. The ignorant jerk. I told him this country astonished the world by freeing its blacks at the cost of half a million white lives. Exactly as George Washington did personally in his will. ‘You should be so lucky as to share his name, boy,’ (a word they hate), I said. Without George Washington this would be a sadder, poorer world, for God’s sake.”
“You bring me to my feet in admiration, Miss Washington,” said Leland, rising. The others stared as he took several agitated paces to the window and back. “No wonder you found your way into government and politics. No wonder King’s birthday means so much to you.
“You’re kind, Senator, but please call me Susan. And this day does mean a lot to me. More than you know,” she said with a half-sob, burying her face in her hands.
Karen glared at George and sharply motioned him to sit down. “That’s really why I wanted us to meet right away, and have the pastor join us.”
She nodded to Steve to continue. He leaned forward and fixed George’s gaze. “This is heavy, my brother,” he began. “Your fetal pain bill is important, and the role Susan’s boss might play is important, but our young friend here is facing something far more important than any of that right now. Susan, child, you need to do this yourself. I know it’s hard, but can you do it?”
Susan Washington squared her shoulders, nodded silently, and swept her glance around the table. Pain was written across her face.
Looking directly at Leland – but more, it seemed, through him, as if seeing into the infinite distance – she burst out in a strangled voice: “Oh Jonah. My precious Jonah. My precious little boy. Where are you now? I want you back, my baby. I miss you so!”
Cooley and Brown both gave Leland a “Now do you get it?” look, pathos in their eyes.
“This very day one year ago, Martin Luther King Day 2016, over at Planned Parenthood on 20th Street, I aborted my little son, Senator,” continued Susan in a low monotone. “It was the worst day of my life. The worst. I’d give anything to have that day back. I’ve relived it a thousand times. That dear, defenseless little boy. Little Jonah, I named him the next day. One day too late.”
The lawmaker gently touched her arm. He wished he was somewhere else. He saw the pastor, out of her field of vision, signaling him to engage, meet the moment. George knew he must.
“Susan, brave girl, God help you,” he fumbled. “I mean that. He will. He loves you so, you and Jonah both. I believe He forgives you and He wants to bring healing out of this, to somehow use it for good.”
“Amen, George, amen,” murmured Steve.
“It seems so to me, sir, yes,” Susan answered. “Over Christmas when your bill was in the news, SB-78, I was thinking if it had been law when I and my boyfriend were dealing with this pregnancy, we wouldn’t have had the abortion. Not just the legal requirements, but the whole message it sends. ‘That’s not a choice, it’s a child.’ I used to think that bumper sticker was so lame. Not any more.
“So I convinced Bill – excuse me, I mean Senator Martin, the Majority Leader – I convinced him – you know he has those twin daughters about my age, and one of them’s a single mom – I worked on him and yesterday he came around, and that’s why I was in your office this morning.
“If our state had a fetal pain bill like Utah, maybe the next little Jonah would have a chance to be born and be in his mother’s arms.” This with another half-sob, but she was in control now. Her strength amazed George.
“When Susan told me all of this earlier, she mentioned having brought it to Steve, her pastor, with the idea of even testifying on the bill when it’s heard next week, telling her own story – but that Steve was against that,” Karen Cooley said. “At that point I decided we needed to get the four of us in a room and all get on the same page.”
“All of you are right,” George Leland said, “and I’m grateful to all of you. Recruiting Martin was the right thing, and convening us here was the right thing, and protecting Miss Washington is the supremely right thing.”
He touched her arm again and added gravely: “I just hope and pray that’s still possible, because someone has tipped off the Herald.”
On the table next to his coffee cup, Leland’s phone vibrated. He hit “Ignore” and read aloud from the caller ID: “Blake Peters.”
Susan had her weight forward on the palms of both hands. Her jaw was set. “Senator, I want to testify and help pass the bill. Even with Martin signing on, it’s going to be tough in committee and tough on the floor. I could make the difference. I don’t care about the media exposure. Dr. King never played it safe. If he were here today, he’d be the biggest pro-lifer out there. He’d be saying, ‘Born and unborn, all lives matter.’”
“Child, as your pastor, I beg you, use wisdom here. Give yourself a chance to heal. There will be other years, other bills, other battles. I’m concerned this is not God’s timing. All lives do matter, yours included and Jonah’s included. They’ll make your son into a political slogan. Both sides will. In love to him, please don’t go there. Please.”
“I see your point, Steve. But we all know what Susan is made of. MVP in the Final Four her senior year, remember? This story could go national, and I mean in a good way. I will put the full weight of Veritas Institute’s legislative muscle behind this. I will work my Service Party contacts, black and Hispanic especially. We can do this, George. It can be a game-changer.”
As Karen was talking, her permed red hair tossing with excitement, George again got to his feet and walked to the window. He reached his arms high on the upper sash and looked out at a snow squall sweeping across Walton Drive in the dusk. “Forgive me, everyone,” he said with his back still to the room. “Sometimes I just have to pace.”
His phone jiggled on the table once more. He beckoned to Karen and she tossed it to him. “Persistent soul, aren’t you, Blake? I almost said pesky. But I know, just doing your job. Nice weather we’re having.”
Leland resumed his seat and switched the phone to speaker. The reporter’s brusque tone cut across the senator’s banter. “Look, George, I’m on deadline here, but I owe you a chance to comment on this Susan Washington story before we go with it online tonight and in print tomorrow morning.
“I have it ironclad. Fully corroborated. The Herald will report that this unfortunate young woman has a lot of remorse over her terminated pregnancy last year, and she has worked on Senator Martin’s sympathies to achieve the first crack in the wall of our state’s pro-choice legislative coalition since 1973 – in the form of your fetal pain bill that comes up in the HHS Committee next Monday.
“Miss Washington is going to be even bigger on the front page this year than she was on the sports page with Kentucky back in 2013. I’m not asking you if it’s so, Senator. I’m just inviting your reaction.”
Leland’s eyes had been riveted on the phone the whole time Peters was talking, his mind furiously working through the intricate chess puzzle they faced. Looking up, he saw three pairs of eyes riveted on him. No one spoke or moved. A steam radiator pipe in the corner clanged twice and went silent. George forced a little laugh that he knew was unconvincing.
“Blake, you have a nose for news like no one else in this town, and you’ve proved it again today. But even you and the Herald sometimes get scooped. If you check your Twitter feed about three minutes from now, you will learn – at the same moment as AP, Channel 5, and NewsTalk 1200 – that I am pulling the bill you asked about, SB-78, effective at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow when the Senate reconvenes.
“I still believe in the concept of the bill, but it needs more work to pass constitutional muster, so we’re done for 2017. As for that majority staffer you spoke of, Susan Washington I believe her name was, I scarcely know the young woman. But from a distance she looks like the grown daughter any older man like you or me would be proud to have. A daughter to love, if you get my drift.”
Peters’ voice softened. “I do get your drift, Senator Leland, and I couldn’t have put it better myself. Someone who certainly shouldn’t have her personal life splashed in the news for no good reason. Someone I won’t even distress with a phone call this evening.
“But what a gamer. What a fighter, whether under the basket or under the dome. Please give her my respects if you happen to see her.”
“I will if I happen to,” said Leland, “I will indeed.” And hung up the phone.
More Fiction with Senator Leland:
Leland Drawings by Benjamin Hummel