Decoding Paiva Weed's picks for Judiciary -- and what it means in RI's fight over same-sex marriage

Jan 9, 2013

Paiva Weed
Credit General Assembly photo

If Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed wanted to leave an opaque outlook for Rhode Island's coming battle over same-sex marriage, she couldn't have done a better job yesterday with her picks for the all-important Senate Judiciary Committee.

Paiva Weed is a canny politician; She certainly has more to gain by leaving room to maneuver on the same-sex marriage issue than by signaling an unexpected green light just a week into the new legislative session.

That helps to explain why Gayle Goldin, the hand-picked successor of liberal champion Rhoda Perry (who didn't seek re-election last year), wasn't picked for Perry's former slot on Judiciary.

And that's why the Senate president offered a fairly inscrutable lineup for Judiciary. She subtracted two opponents of same-sex marriage (Maryellen Goodwin and William Walaska); while adding a supporter (Steve Archambault), two opponents (Frank Lombardi and Lou Raptakis), and someone (William Conley) who is seen as having been opposed to same-sex marriage rights, but who now calls himself non-committal.

For those keeping score at home, that leaves five expected yes votes on the 10-member Judiciary Committee, four no votes, and a question mark.

Yet trying to draw conclusions from this math is an uncertain proposition. Controversial votes at the Statehouse generally have all the surprise of a Soviet show trial, and lawmakers can always take a pre-ordained walk on a tough vote.

The bottom line was acknowledged yesterday by Josh Miller, a savvy senator who is pro-same sex marriage: the outlook this year on the issue is fundamentally unchanged. In other words, the Senate could conceivably pass same-sex marriage, defeat it, subject it to a statewide vote, or do something else.

By leaving the outlook muddy, Paiva Weed has maximized her flexibility in negotiations with House Speaker Gordon Fox, who has a lot riding on the outcome. During a tough re-election challenge from Mark Binder, Fox pledged to call a vote on same-sex marriage early in this session. That's quite different from how he lent support for civil unions in 2011 -- a half-measure that has attracted meager interest from same-sex couples.

What ultimately happens later this year will depend on a mix of grassroots mobilization and that old standby of Smith Hill -- horse-trading behind closed doors.