On Politics
2:31 pm
Fri January 25, 2013

Senate President Paiva Weed's legacy hinges on gay marriage

Same sex marriage has won overwhelming approval in the Rhode Island House. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay on what’s next in this historic debate.

If you don’t believe the political landscape in Rhode Island has undergone a seismic shift, you weren’t at McKim, Mead and White’s State House for the historic House vote on same sex marriage.  The measure won overwhelmingly on a 51 to 19 tally.

What is remarkable about this vote is that just two years ago there was no chance this would have happened in one of the most Roman Catholic of  states. But the change in attitudes has reverberated from our State House to the White House.

Let us not forget that it is only within the last year or so that political leaders, including President Barack Obama and Senator Jack Reed, have evolved from opposition to same gender marriage to its embrace.

The president has come a long way, going so far in his Inaugural address as to elevate gay marriage to such iconic, arc-of-history American equal rights campaigns as those that granted women the vote and civil rights to African-Americans.  ``Our journey is not complete,’’ said President Obama. ``Until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like everyone else under the law.’’

Demographics have become destiny in this debate. When you read the newspaper obit section, you can safely say there goes another opponent of  gay marriage. Every credible public opinion survey shows most younger voters support same sex marriage.

Many elements of this issue have evolved. Supporters of same gender marriage have been helped immeasurably by gays, including education, business and political leaders, coming out of the closet. Building coalitions with other interest groups, particularly organized labor, long a vigorous lobbying presence at the Capitol, has also helped.

Yet, despite the House victory, gay marriage supporters know they face a huge hurdle when this matter moves across the marble Smith Hill rotunda to the Senate, where the fate of  gay marriage is uncertain. The focus for weeks now has been on Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Newport Democrat who opposes extending full marriage rights to gays.

Paiva Weed has said she will allow a vote in the Senate, but won’t say when or whether amendments will be allowed. All she would say in a recent interview is that she is aware of the importance that the House and its Speaker Gordon Fox of   Providence and Governor Lincoln Chafee attach to gay marriage.

There will be an attempt by opponents to shift the debate from the State House to a statewide referendum that would be expensive, long and divisive. In our constitutional democracy, civil rights issues are not solved by such votes. Does anyone really think that blacks would have won the right to vote in Mississippi in the 1960s if the issue was decided by a statewide vote?

A referendum would take wavering senators off the hook by allowing our Smith Hill profiles in courage to duck a tough vote by shuttling it off to their constituents.  But as Gov. Chafee told us recently, if   lawmakers aren’t willing to take difficult votes, what are they there for?

The overarching question in the corridors, coffee shops and watering holes frequented by the Smith Hill crowd is: what does Paiva Weed want? And the corollary: What will it take to ensure she doesn’t derail this historic measure?

Lawmakers, both pro and con, rarely say publicly anything that smacks of  the insider, transactional politics that so often rules  the day at the State House. But House Minority leader Brian Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican , broke this code of silence by saying in floor debate that gay marriage is not a complicated matter and that there is no reason the Senate couldn’t take an up-or-down vote within a week or two. Pointing to the Senate, Newberry said, ``we all know the Christmas list is being drawn up over there.’’

The governor and the House may have goodies to dangle before Paiva Weed: there are five vacant state judgeships to be filled.

Paiva Weed is a wily, smart politician who was first elected to the State House during the banking crisis in 1992. She moved up the leadership ladder to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to hold the top leadership position in either the House or Senate.

Now she has a decision that will define her legacy: On gay marriage, the civil rights issue of our time, she can become the 21st century Rhode Island equivalent of  George Wallace at the school house door.

Or her reputation can be defined as a leader who decided to allow Rhode Island to extend to our gay neighbors the rights of marriage and the glorious majesty and inglorious misery that comes with this venerable institution.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:45. You can also follow his political commentary and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed
Credit courtesy of Teresa Paiva Weed

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