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Can Charlottesville awaken Pa.'s legislature?

In the wake of hate-caused violence in Virginia, there are calls for a stronger hate-crimes law in Pennsylvania.

White supremacist groups clashed with  counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.
White supremacist groups clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Saturday.Read moreMICHAEL NIGRO / Pacific Press, Zuma Press, TNS

You might think hate-fueled death, injuries, and violence in Charlottesville, Va., would move elected officials everywhere to reexamine public policy.

As far-right neo-Nazi and white supremacist leaders promise future marches with the potential for more of what we witnessed last weekend, you might wonder where's the evidence of action against such hatred.

Well, if you're looking for responses from the Pennsylvania legislature, don't expect much.

As is true in so many areas that actually impact people's lives, the legislature, when it comes to hate crimes, is MIA.

It's another instance of short-sighted governance, the only Northeastern state that does not extend protection based on sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.

Maybe you caught some of the explicit anti-LGBT chants in Virginia.

And, yes, laws on the books don't stop bigotry. But they do define a society's belief in equality, and underscore unity over division.

So State Rep. Dan Frankel of Allegheny County, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is calling on Republican leaders who control the legislature to schedule a vote to strengthen the state hate-crimes law.

"It's frustrating," he tells me. "We as legislators have limited capacity to do something other than speak out. But this is one thing we can do that has substance and is a good way to make a statement."

Why are we regional outliers on this?

Three reasons: mismanagement of past legislation, broad swaths of social conservatism, and spine-free political leadership.

We had a tough hate-crimes law. It was enacted in 2002. But it was, as much legislation is, constitutionally sloppy. It was an amendment inserted into an agricultural bill.

The evangelical Christian group Repent America sued on grounds it failed to meet a constitutionally mandated single-topic provision, a common occurrence rarely called out. State courts agreed. The law got tossed.

In the years since, the legislature grew more conservative. And multiple efforts to resurrect the tougher law failed – even after a high-profile 2014 hate-crime beating of a gay couple in Center City, after a 2016 neo-Nazi rally on the state Capitol steps, and after a 2017 KKK cross-burning in Lancaster County.

Instead, there was year after year of inaction. And now, two bills sit ignored in House and Senate committees.

I ask Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.), sponsor of the House bill, whether the events in Virginia could spur action on his legislation. He says, "Well, they should."

He notes lawmakers passed such legislation more than a decade ago and asks, "Why not now, especially given the growth of the alt-right?"

A matching Senate bill (both measures also extend protection based on ancestry and disabilities) is sponsored by Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.).

"When you look back at the history of hate-crime statutes, they were in response to KKK and Nazi groups 40 years ago," Farnese says. "That we're still dealing with this today? We should all be ashamed we can't get these bills to move."

Frankel believes that if put up for votes, the bills would pass. But Farnese says GOP leaders are "scared to do the right thing for fear it will cost them political points."

Boyle's bill is cosponsored by dozens of Democrats, but just two Republicans: Reps. Thomas Murt (R., Montgomery) and John Taylor (R., Phila.).

Farnese's bill has nine cosponsors, all Democrats.

I reached out to GOP leadership press aides about possible votes on these bills. A Senate aide said leaders there are willing to take a look. A House spokesman said the House bill's "on a list the Judiciary Committee wants to go through."

This shouldn't be and isn't a partisan thing. It's basic. It's lending, at least, a voice against intolerance, against hate-based violence.

It's also an affirmation of founding principles, of equality and shared rights.  And it's way past time our elected officials embraced it.