Senate will be Ground Zero for Rhode Island Gay Marriage Debate
Friday, July 06, 2012
With House Speaker Gordon Fox already pledging to call for a vote on gay marriage early in the 2013 General Assembly session, marriage equality supporters say they will ramp up their efforts to pick off Senators who do not support the issue during elections this fall.
After nearly coming to a vote in 2011 before the General Assembly instead opted to pass what Sullivan often refers to as the “worst civil unions bill in the country,” gay marriage was tabled completely this past legislative session.
But Fox, who is openly gay, said in an interview last week that civil unions provided the “backstop” that will allow him to call for a vote. The Speaker, who was rumored to have been considering leaving office, said marriage equality is a top priority for next year.
“It’s one of the main reasons I’m coming back. There’s unfinished business,” Fox said. “I’m calling the vote.”
Fox indicated he considered civil unions part of his political strategy to pass same-sex marriage.
“At this point I never believed civil unions was a replacement for full marriage equality,” Fox said. “But in terms of the rights, so my political strategy was let’s get civil unions so those that need the rights now will have a mechanism to get the rights. But I have never one time ever thought that they were equal.”
Senate Judiciary Chair Targeted
Still, while Fox’s support may have been reassuring to the gay community, the Senate has long been considered a major hurdle. Both Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed and Senate Judiciary Chair Michael McCaffrey are not supporters of the cause.
But while Paiva-Weed is all but certain to win re-election this fall, McCaffrey is one of the candidates that will be targeted by marriage equality supporters. McCaffrey, who has held office since 1994 and has over $127,000 in his campaign account, will face a tough primary against Laura Pisaturo, an attorney who was a finalist for a District Court judgeship under Governor Don Carcieri.
Pisaturo is a promising candidate, Sullivan said, because she isn’t running on a singular issue. He said the key for his slate of Senate hopefuls is to be strong “kitchen table issues” candidates who happen to support same-sex marriage.
“Kitchen table issues are going to absolutely win these elections,” Sullivan said. “The things that hard working people talk about when they’re at the dinner table at night, when they are paying their mortgage and figuring out how to pay for college or how they’re going to retire.”
Pisaturo appears comfortable taking that approach as well. In a press release announcing her candidacy last week, she did not mention that she is marriage equality supporter.
“I’ve spent my career fighting for working folks and I’ve seen first-hand how families are being affected by our struggling economy,” she said. “This race comes down to one thing: Change versus more of the same. If you’re happy with the direction in which our state is headed, then I’m not your candidate. But if you’re looking for someone who will challenge the status quo and fight for the things we all believe in, then I ask you for your vote in the Democratic Primary on September11th.”
McCaffrey isn’t the only sitting Senator that will face a strong challenge from candidates expected to be backed by a coalition of progressive activists that will include marriage equality supporters and union members (although many union members say they haven't officially made up their minds on any local races yet).
Senate Finance chairman Daniel DaPonte, who helped lead the way on pension reform last fall, is being challenged by Rep. Roberto DaSilva, who voted against the reform efforts in the House. While it is unclear where either candidate stands on marriage equality, DaSilva is likely hoping to pick up union support in an effort to make an example out of DaPonte.
In District 33, Dave Gorman, a firefighter who supports marriage equality, has picked up union support in his primary against Lou Raptakis, an anti-gay marriage candidate. The winner will challenge Republican Glen Shibley.
The alliance between the gay marriage advocates, unions and other groups like Ocean State Action, Planned Parenthood and Clean Water Action, will likely have a major influence over the September primaries. In a year where the primary won't include any statewide races, less than 1,500 votes could win a local election. Sullivan said candidates backed by strong organizers will likely have a major advantage over their opponents.
While the decision will ultimately fall on Paiva-Weed to bring same-sex marriage to a vote, advocates believe the increased pressure of having several new equality supporters in the Senate could swing her decision.
For now, she refuses to tip her hand. In fact, in May, when Governor Chafee became the first Governor in the country to sign an executive order recognizing out-of-state gay marriages, Paiva-Weed was said to be livid, according to those close to her office.
“Let’s get full equality,” Chafee said at the time. “It’s time to get on with it.”
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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