Gay marriage gaining momentum

Apr 22, 2013

As the hours dwindle to tomorrow’s Senate Judiciary Committee consideration of same-sex marriage, it appears advocates of gay unions have an advantage, say State House sources. What is still unknown is what will happen when the issue hits the Senate floor, which could come as early as Wednesday, or more likely, Thursday.

What is clear this time around is that the marriage equality campaign has done a better job this time around than two years ago, when the General Assembly approved civil unions in a compromise that pleased neither side.

In hiring operatives Devin Driscoll and Ray Sullivan, the pro gay marriage forces showed that they understood that their effort had to be waged in the same manner as a political campaign.  Both Driscoll and Sullivan are experienced veterans of the Obama presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Sullivan is also a former Democratic state representative from Coventry who has strong ties to the progressive and organized labor wings of his party.

Besides the aggressive campaign that generated thousands of telephone calls and filled email in boxes, the marriage equality campaign knocked on 23,000 voters’ doors in districts where senators have not publicly committed on the legislation.

The marriage equality juggernaut has been helped immeasurably by changes in public opinion, the evolution of elected officials on the issue, the adoption of same-sex marriage in every other New England state and voter sentiment in four states, including Maine, that favored marriage equality in 2012 referenda.

Rhode Island’s business community also rallied behind the effort. For years, business and the major non-profit employers, including colleges and hospitals, have been ahead of the political hierarchy on gay marriage by offering domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples.

Another major change in the political landscape was the 2010 gubernatorial election, where the strongest supporter of gay marriage, independent Lincoln Chafee, won election over three other candidates. During the eight years conservative Republican Donald Carcieri held the State House, Assembly proponents of gay marriage didn’t bother waging a major campaign for this legislation because they knew Carcieri would have vetoed any pro same gender marriage bill.

The election of Chafee, who has been a steadfast supporter of marriage equality, changed things and gave Rhode Island a chance to join the rest of New England. Chafee mentioned same sex marriage in his inaugural address and has campaigned vigorously for it since.

In the House, Speaker Gordon Fox, who is openly gay, moved the bill through his chamber on an overwhelming vote. Just a few years back, this might have meant a backlash against lawmakers who supported it, but  this time around there have been virtually no public repercussions. None of the lawmakers who voted for it have been subject to public protests, outside of a few of the usual talk radio cranks.

What is remarkable is that there now may be more fallout for politicians who oppose gay marriage. The public has become more sophisticated in this issue; a Washington Post/NBC News public opinion survey last month showed that opinion has shifted rapidly on this topic. The poll showed that 58 percent of voters believe it should be legal for same sex couples to marry.

That survey was of 1,001 adults across the country and carries an error margin of 3.7 percent. The poll’s demographics are even more dramatic. While voters aged 65 and over oppose same sex marriage, younger voters overwhelmingly approve. Every day when you read the obituary pages of your newspaper, you are saying goodbye to those who are against gay marriage.

Ever notice that when politicians  say they have ``evolved’’ on an issue, that means that the polls have moved to reflect that more than 50 percent or more of voters are on the side they are evolving toward?

Nothing makes a pol take notice like the prospect of losing his/her seat over an issue they really don’t care all that much about. Rhode Island pols have also noticed that legislative votes for same sex marriage haven’t cost lawmakers their seats in other New England states. The new normal in our region may be the political price that will be paid by those on the wrong side of history on this issue.

In recent elections, a combination of  marriage equality advocates, progressive Democrats and organized labor boots on the ground have challenged more conservative Democrats in primaries, with some success. And even when they aren’t successful, they can make life miserable for conservative incumbents who thought they had safe seats.

The marriage equality advocates were caught flat-footed two years ago by a vigorous campaign and lobbying effort by Bishop Tobin, Rev. Bernard Healey, the church’s popular State House liaison and an electorate that was more sharply divided than it is today. But this year, the marriage equality campaign enlisted a group of clergy leaders from many faiths and denominations to counter the arguments of the Roman Catholic church.

The message was respectful and pulled from the hymnals of mainline Protestant churches. Your faith may be 2,000 years old but that doesn’t mean your thinking has to be.

As the Rhode Island State House debate over same-sex marriage enters a crucial week, the religious combatants went at it again today, with Bishop Thomas Tobin, Roman Catholic Bishop of Providence issuing a statement in opposition to marriage equality and clergy on the other side answering.

Bishop Tobin reiterated his staunch opposition to marriage equality, calling it ``an immoral and unnecessary proposition’’ and urging the RI Senate to oppose it. On the other side was the Rev. Gene Dyszlewski, an ordained congregational minister, who said in a statement that ``I am deeply disappointed that Bishop Tobin has chosen to use this moment of decision to make a statement that is hurtful to so many in our community – not just same sex couples but also their families.’’

The pro-marriage equality forces probably have the votes to win this issue in the Senate. Yet, the State House is forever a cauldron of revenge, petty payback, last-minute subterfuge and behind the curtain deals. So what isn’t known is just how far from the relatively straight forward House legislation the Senate will stray. Will they load the bill with so many so-called religious exemptions that the House cannot accept it? Will the statewide referendum bill pushed by Sen. Frank Ciccone, D-Providence, win approval?