Rhode Island's New Day

Apr 26, 2013

Change happens slowly in politics. Except when it doesn’t. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay explains the forces behind Rhode Island’s reversal on gay marriage.

The Ocean State is poised to become the 10th  state in the nation to recognize same sex marriages and join our five New England neighbors in the vanguard of the movement for equal treatment for our gay citizens.

The Rhode Island House and Senate have both now approved by comfortable margins. Governor Lincoln Chafee, a staunch supporter, is certain to sign the measure when it moves to his desk, probably within a few days.

Debate over same sex marriage has simmered at the Statehouse since 1997, but until last week had never been approved by both chambers of the General Assembly. Most remarkable is the speed with which same gender marriage came to be accepted by a majority of Rhode Islanders and their political representatives.

Political change never sprouts from virgin soil. In the Ocean State, the field for gay marriage was first plowed during the 1990s when the General Assembly passed and then Gov. Lincoln Almond signed into law a measure that barred  discrimination against gays in employment, housing, public accommodations and the granting of credit. That legislation was approved only after an 11-year debate that packed State House hearing rooms and pitted openly gay citizens against religious conservatives, including the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

The late Julia Pell, daughter of Sen. Claiborne Pell, and her mother, Nuala Pell, both lobbied vigorously on behalf of the gay rights legislation. Julia Pell learned politics working behind the scenes on her father’s campaigns. And Mrs. Pell, a revered figure in the state’s Democratic Party, a women at her  husband’s side during his 36 Senate years, prowled the State House corridors to gather support for her lesbian daughter’s crusade.

After Vermont in 2000 became the first state to legalize gay civil unions, gay rights activists in other New England states began organizing politically and using the courts to seek equal treatment. This movement led to recognition of gay marriage in other New England states; only Rhode Island was the holdout.

The overarching reason was that Gov. Donald Carcieri, a conservative Republican with Red State views on social issues, threatened to veto any gay civil union or marriage legislation. So state lawmakers decided not to take tough votes on this issue, because they couldn’t stomach the voter backlash on a topic the governor was going to stop anyway.

Then the political landscape shifted dramatically.  It began with small acts of courage; individual gay citizens deciding they were not going to live closeted lives. As more gays came out, Rhode Islanders got to know relatives, friends and co-workers whose lives differed little from everyone else except for their sexual orientation. One by one our New England neighbors adopted same sex marriage. Rhode Islanders noticed that nothing much changed in Seekonk, Pomfret, Portland, Burlington or Concord when gay marriage was the law and the church doors remained open as before.

As the stigma of being gay faded, politicians took notice. And despite fervent opposition from Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin in this very Catholic state, heterosexual citizens decided their fellow gay citizens deserved the joys, heartaches and legal benefits of marriage. Rhode Island has few evangelical Protestants and mainline Protestant denominations visibly supported gay marriage.

As public opinion moved, especially among young and educated Rhode Islanders, the politicians followed. Prominent Catholics, including Congressman Jim Langevin and Senator Jack Reed, changed their views and embraced same sex unions. A new governor, Republican-turned-independent Lincoln Chafee, campaigned for same sex marriage and stuck with this battle even after the Assembly settled for civil unions two years ago.

The business community in the Ocean State, and in most other states, has long been ahead of the political leadership on this issue. Major businesses and the big non-profit employers, including colleges and hospitals, offered their gay workers domestic partner benefits that included health care and pensions.

Then the grass-roots campaign began in earnest.  A group organized as Rhode Islanders United for Marriage hired seasoned political operatives and built a strong coalition that included gay rights activists, organized labor, major elements of the business community, supportive Protestant and Jewish clergy, progressive and liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans.

The tiny 5-member Republican caucus in the state Senate was particularly supportive, announcing its support on the eve of the Senate debate. The Senate Democratic leadership, led by Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport and Dominick Ruggerio of Providence, both voted against same sex marriage. Yet, as the gay marriage campaign gained traction, Paiva Weed said she would allow a vote on the issue, without playing the usual State House obstruction games. She kept her word.

In the end, the aggressive grass-roots campaign won  the day by knocking on doors and putting voter pressure on wavering senators. Bishop Tobin and opponents of the legislation had a fallback position –shuttle the issue off to a voter referendum. By then it was too late. The Smith Hill pols, whose fundamental instinct is for self-preservation, knew they would lose a referendum against a vigorous campaign. And because the gay marriage side was so well-organized, many opponents and waverers grasped the reality that the collateral damage of a referendum could be the loss of their seats in primaries against well-financed and energized gay marriage supporters.

On this issue, representative democracy triumphed. Proof positive that an engaged public can win an issue, even in the halls of a State House too often seen as in thrall to parochial interests.

In 2000, when Vermont became the first state to legalize gay unions, then-Gov. Howard Dean cloistered himself in his office to sign the bill into law. No media coverage or photographers were allowed to witness the historic event because emotions in the Green Mountain State were boiling over. When Gov. Chafee signs Rhode Island’s gay marriage bill, he can do it in the bright sunshine of a new day in one of the nation’s oldest states.