Tuesday was a remarkable day in Rhode Island politics. First, the five-member GOP contingent in the 38-member state Senate -- including the chamber's low-key minority leader, Dennis Algiere -- offered its unified support for same-sex marriage. Then, and much more significantly, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio found himself on the wrong side of a key vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Rhode Island is now on the cusp of legalizing same-sex marriage. Here are my top three questions as the Senate prepares to gather at 4 this afternoon:
1. How did leadership botch the numbers? The Judiciary Committee's direction was hard to read when Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed reshaped the panel early in the new legislative session. Yet as winter shifted to spring, it became increasingly clear the votes were there to move Senator Donna Nesselbush's same-sex marriage bill from the committee to the Senate floor; A key moment came when Senator Lou Raptakis, who has a longstanding maverick streak, asked that his name be removed as a cosponsor of Senator Frank Ciccone's bill calling for a statewide referendum. It's virtually unthinkable that Ruggerio, the influential dean of the Senate, would have used his ex officio capacity to vote in Senate Judiciary if he knew Ciccone's bill would go down to defeat. Yet it did, 6-5, and the advocates who ramped up an aggressive grassroots campaign that began in February demonstrated their superior skill as vote-counters.
2. Does the empire strike back? As we've noted before, General Assembly votes typically happen with all the spontaneity of a Moscow show trial. Surprising outcomes are rare, and often to inconsequential internal effect, as with state Representative Patrick O'Neill's maneuver on an ethics bill earlier this session. Same-sex marriage is different -- an impactful issue that advocates have been trying to pass on Smith Hill for almost 20 years. So does Senate leadership move Wednesday afternoon to resurface the Ciccone bill? That seems unlikely, given shifting public support for SSM, but you never know.
3. How many "yes" votes? A quick look at the Senate roster suggests support for the Nesselbush bill from more than 20 of the 38 senators. The guessing game among many observers is whether the number of votes in support is 22, 23, 24 -- or even higher. The hard "no" votes are known to include a small number of senators. Many more senators are in favor, and a smaller number are in the middle. All will become known Wednesday afternoon.