Political Reality: How the RI Senate Lost its Status as the Bermuda Triangle of Same-Sex Marriage

Apr 24, 2013

These two guys from Newport have been waiting to marry since Jimmy Carter was president.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

In recent years, the Rhode Island Senate has been considered the Bermuda Triangle of same-sex politics -- the place where gay marriage legislation would supposedly go to die.

Yet when same-sex bills actually got introduced in the Senate this year, they passed -- after some typical legislative hurry-up-and-wait -- with remarkable speed and lopsided support (26-12). Catholic lawmakers who were assumed to be "No" votes, ranging from freshman Senator William Conley of East Providence to Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin of Providence, wound up voting yes. Both offered compelling testimony, as did some of their colleagues in this heavily Catholic state.

Much of the credit for the vote in favor goes to Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, who let the process unfold despite being a personal opponent of same-sex marriage and despite having a leadership team composed heavily of same-sex marriage opponents. She was graceful and gracious in reacting to the vote, expressing happiness for supporters enjoying a victory sought since 1997 and praising the debate and what she called mutual respect among senators. "I think it really is an example of the democratic process at its best," Paiva Weed told me after the vote Wednesday.

Earlier in the session, rumors spread that passing same-sex marriage would be part of some grand bargain, perhaps for labor's pet target of expanding binding arbitration. Yet in the end, there was no horse-trading on the issue, a source familiar with the issue tells me.

Could this have happened sooner had openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox not short-circuited the debate in favor of a poorly subscribed civil union law in 2011? Probably not. Public attitudes about same-sex marriage have significantly changed just in the last few years, as seen by the number of US senators whose stances evolved after Hillary Clinton announced her support earlier this year; the same is true in Rhode Island, where Jack Reed quickly became a supporter following President Obama last year.

Following the floor vote, I asked Paiva Weed about how she decided to let the debate play out in the Senate, rather than blocking it. Here's her the meat of her response, which followed a brief hesitation:

[Judiciary] Chairman [Michael] McCaffrey and I had discussed it throughout the course of the election, because it was very much an issue in the forefront of the election," when he was challenged in Warwick last year by Laura Pisaturo, an openly gay woman.

"And at some point during that discussion I would say that we decided together it was very important that the bill, bills have a full hearing in the committee, be fully debated, and have an opportunity for the members on the floor to debate and vote the bill."

Some Statehouse observers might detect more than a whiff of revisionist history here, as well an attempt to help shield McCaffrey from future re-election challenges. In fact, it seems more likely, as I posited last September, that Pisaturo's loss was really a win for same-sex marriage supporters.

Put another way, support for same-sex marriage grew sufficiently that voting against the issue became more politically toxic than voting for it. (In fact, polling commissioned by Rhode Islanders United for Marriage showed strong support for same-sex marriage in seven Senate districts; the information gleaned this spring was shared by the organization with a number of senators, according to Devin Driscoll, a spokesman for Rhode Islanders United.) Helped by out of town money, primary challenges to Democratic opponents of same-sex marriage would have multiplied in 2014 if the same-sex marriage bill went down to defeat.

Failure is an orphan and victory has many fathers, as the saying goes. So the grassroots campaign run by seasoned pro-same sex activists also played an important role in encouraging the Senate to pass same-gender marriage. Republican senators, marginalized because of their small numbers, raised their profile with unified support for the cause. Labor, which excels in picking off targets in primary elections, became an important part of the coaltion for same-sex marriage.

As a result, after a House Judiciary vote next Tuesday and a House vote on May 2, Governor Lincoln Chafee could sign the same-sex marriage legislation into law as soon as late next week.

That's joyous news for people like David Burnett and Larry Bacon of Newport, who say they've been waiting to get married since when Jimmy Carter was president. “We’ve had a marriage in fact for 36 years," Bacon says, "and it’s time that it was recognized we feel, and formalized. And it will be formalized, we hope, in October.”

The fallout on Smith Hill -- and what it means for Paiva Weed as she leads a leadership team split by this issue -- is harder to discern.

[This post has been updated]