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SLIDES: Can Gay Marriage Clear the Senate Judiciary Committee?

Monday, January 28, 2013


Mere moments after the House of Representatives approved a bill by Rep. Arthur Handy last week that would legalize same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, proponents both for and against the measure began to wonder how long it would take the State Senate to begin its discussions on the controversial social issue.
But lost in the shuffle of that potential milestone moment is the fact that, for the bill to even get to the full Senate, it first has to pass the Senate Judiciary Committee.
And that’s no easy task.
Experts around the state agree that same sex marriage has a better chance of passing in Rhode Island now than ever before but the key hurdle will be getting through a judiciary committee that is, by all accounts, split right down the middle on the issue.
So who are the members of this key committee that may well decide the issue of same sex marriage in Rhode Island?
Take a look.

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Michael McCaffrey

Senator, District 29 (Warwick)

There’s a reason McCaffrey, a conservative Democrat, was a major target of the same-sex marriage group Fight Back RI during last year’s elections. Simply put, McCaffrey will likely stand as the biggest foe to same sex marriage in the Senate Judiciary Committee and everyone on both sides of the debate knows it.

McCaffrey fought off a valiant effort by fellow Democrat Laura Pisaturo during the primary elections last year and moments after those results came in, those looking ahead to this legislative season immediately checked McCaffrey off as a ‘no’ vote if and when the topic got to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The question isn’t whether or not McCaffrey will vote against legalizing same-sex marriage—he probably will—but  what is more interesting is how much of a role, if any, will he influence the committee through his role as chairman?

Can McCaffrey control the debate? Can he steer potential votes his way from those on the fence on the issue?

The odds of same sex marriage becoming legal in RI rest largely on whether or not the bill gets out of the judiciary committee and to the full Senate. If it doesn’t, those on both sides of the debate will likely point to McCaffrey as one of the key people who got it spiked.

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Paul Jabour

Senator, District 5 (Providence)

While it’s been relatively easy to separate many of the members of the Judiciary Committee into “pro” or “anti” gay marriage categories, the Vice Chairman of the body himself seems like he could be an actual wildcard.

During campaign season last year, Jabour said he personally opposes gay marriage but, at the same time, gave those hoping to see it legalized a ray of hope as he said he would keep his personal politics out of the way when it comes time for him to make a decision on any bill in question.

 “Do I support gay marriage? The answer is no,” Jabour said in a candidate forum back in September “I support civil unions. I’m not going to lie to my community but if that bill gets to the Senate floor and my constituency tells me that they want me to vote for it and it’s overwhelming, then I’m obligated to do what my constituency wants because that’s what I was elected for.”

Given the reaction same-sex marriage got both state and nationwide last week when the House approved Handy’s bill, it would be easy for Jabour to say his community supports the measure … if that’s the case.

But no one will know what goes on behind closed doors with Jabour and his constituents and how the Senator feels his district wants him to vote won’t really be known until it comes time for him to say “yay” or “nay” on the bill at hand.

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Erin Lynch

Senator, District 31 (Warwick, Cranston)

While she may not get the attention of a Hodgson or a Nesselbush, Erin Lynch has quietly put together a resume that makes her appear like a lock in the ‘yes’ category for same-sex marriage.

In just her second year in office, Lynch made waves in the General Assembly by introducing legislation that would have allowed gay couples the chance to get a divorce, even if their marriage wasn’t fully recognized by the state.

In the time since, the now secretary of the judiciary committee has been regarded as a supporter of gay marriage and she was one of 11 Senators to co-sponsor Nesselbush’s bill in the Senate to change RI’s definition of marriage.

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Stephen Archambault

Senator, District 22 (Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston)

Sounding an awful lot like Hodgson, Archambault came out heavily in support of same-sex marriage in a recent interview with a newspaper from his home district of Smithfield.

The first-term Senator, who took the same stand on the issue years ago when he was running for Attorney General, said same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue and “it’s about treating people equally.”

In addition to Lynch, Archambault was one of 11 Senators to sign off on Nesselbush’s Senate version of the same-sex marriage bill and, barring a complete and total surprise, should be a firm ‘yes’ when the matter is put up to a vote.

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William Conley

Senator, District 18 (East Providence, Pawtucket)

While Jabour is a question mark in theory simply because his personal beliefs may or may not line up with the way he votes, the biggest wildcard in the entire Senate Judiciary Committee is a first-time senator from East Providence named William Conley.

The General Assembly member from District 18 has been asked by numerous media outlets in the past few months where he stands on the issue of same-sex marriage and flat out refuses to comment one way or another.

In essence, he is a true, real-life swing vote.

To say this makes him a player to watch during the judiciary debates is an understatement.

With eight of 10 of the judiciary members seemingly decided, and seemingly evenly split, how Conley votes may  decide the bill’s fate in that chamber. If nothing else, the fact that he refuses to take a position leaves its fate unclear heading into the hearings.

The only clue to how Conley may vote is an oft-sourced quote from one of his former colleagues on the East Providence Town Council who says he will likely oppose the bill because he opposed a similar measure when he was on the council.

But there’s no telling how he will vote as being a council member in one district and answering to just your constituents, 82 percent of whom are reportedly Catholic, is vastly different than having the eyes of an entire state’s voting populace trained on you.

Make no mistake, Conley will be the center of attention during these votes and the odds of same-sex marriage getting to the full Senate likely ride on which side of the aisle he decides to fall on. 

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Dawson Hodgson

Senator, District 35 (East Greenwich, North Kingstown, South Kingstown, Narragansett)

It’s not easy being a Republican in Rhode Island and if you need any proof of that, take a look at how party members fared in last November’s election.

Nearly across the board, members of the RI GOP struggled.  

And then there’s Dawson Hodgson.

A Republican attorney/businessman from a district that represents four Southern Rhode Island towns, Hodgson has made waves in his relative short time in office by occasionally bucking his party on issues and perhaps the gap between his party platform and his personal politics is no greater than on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Earlier this month, Hodgson went on record to all but say he was voting to approve the bill when it gets to the Senate, saying he believed that the government has an obligation to treat everyone equally under the law when it comes to the benefits provided by the legal status of marriage.

Hodgson even stated that he opposes having voters decide the matter, an option some in his party have pushed in an effort to keep the General Assembly’s hands clean from the fallback of a flat-out rejection of the bill at hand.

Hodgson is about as close to a ‘yes’ vote as you can get and his party allegiances could prove crucial if, or when, the bill gets to the full Senate.

If nothing else, expect the outspoken Senator to provide staunch opposition to the bill dying in the Judiciary Committee.

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Frank Lombardi

Senator, District 26 (Cranston)

The debate over same-sex marriage has always, and likely will always, center on those who view it as a civil rights issue and those who view it as a religious freedom issue and Cranston’s Frank Lombardi falls strictly in the latter.

A proud Catholic, Lombardi said his religion factored largely in his decision to oppose the removal of the prayer banner at Cranston West High School and he has gone on record to say that his religion will always play a role in the way he votes on matters as a lawmaker.

Lombardi cites his religion as a reason why he couldn’t approve full-fledged marriage for gay couples, though in the run-up to the Democratic primary last fall he said he does support full civil rights for gay and lesbian couples.

For this reason, expect Lombardi to fall in the ‘no’ camp when the votes are tallied.

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Harold Metts

Senator, District 6 (Providence)

While Jabour says he personally opposes same-sex marriage but will vote how he feels his constituents want him to vote, one other Providence-based Senator has outright opposed the issue because he believes the voters he represents have other concerns.

Harold Metts, a Democrat, has come out recently to say that he is opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds but also because the people in his district want the General Assembly to focus on the economy and not on social issues.

Earlier this month, Metts told the Associated Press that he opposes same-sex marriage because of his belief in the bible and says the book makes it clear that “marriage is between a man and a woman.”

This is on top of reports a few years ago that Metts was a speaker at a rally against same-sex marriage so, barring a radical change, anything but a ‘no’ vote from this Senator would be a dramatic surprise.

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Donna Nesselbush

Senator, District 15 (Pawtucket, North Providence)

Just as McCaffrey is considered the main opponent of same-sex marriage on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Donna Nesselbush is perhaps the bill’s biggest supporter.

Nesselbush, a second-term senator who is openly gay, has made no secret about the fact that she supports legalizing same-sex marriage in the Ocean State, so much so that she introduced a bill similar to Handy’s in the Senate earlier this session.

Along with House Speaker Gordon Fox, Nesselbush has emerged as the face of the “marriage equality” movement in the General Assembly and says it’s an issue that is “intensely personal” for her and thousands of others in the state.

While Nesselbush is about as sure a “yes” vote as you could get, what will be more interesting to see is whether or not she can continue to influence those on the fence on the issue.

She’s already taken to calling out those who oppose same-sex marriage and says it is only a matter of time before same-sex marriage becomes legal in Rhode Island.

 “I implore my colleagues to join me in casting a vote on the right side of history,” Nesselbush said earlier this month. “The train has left the station. Marriage equality is inevitable. Young people cannot even understand why this is an issue. A crescendo is building, and most Rhode Islanders want us to enact marriage equality.”

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Leonidas Raptakis

Senator, District 33 (Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich)

Like McCaffrey, Raptakis’ stance on same-sex marriage drew the ire of a well-funded political action group last year during the Democratic primaries as the group People for Rhode Island’s Future spent a reported $26.5K funding pro-same-sex marriage candidates, one of which was Raptakis’ opponent David Gorman.

And, like McCaffrey, Raptakis was able to stave off his primary opponent.

Further, once Raptakis made it through that primary, any chance same-sex marriage proponents had of gaining a vote in the Senate went out the window as his opponent, Glenford J. Shibley, was also against the idea.

Now, Raptakis appears a sure ‘no’ vote on the legislation, though he has gone on record to say he would approve legalizing same-sex marriage if the state’s voters passed it as a ballot measure.

Seeing as the vast majority of same-sex marriage advocates are staunchly opposed to putting the issue up to a vote, Raptakis will likely be no help to their cause when it’s time for the debates to take place. 


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Hope Not

Comment #1 by Mark St. Pierre on 2013 01 28

The only people who seem to care about this are the people in the GA and the people at Golocalprov.

Put it on a ballot, so Rhode Islanders can vote it down again.

This is not a newsworthy, so please write about something else.
Every day, it's the same nonsense.

Comment #2 by pearl fanch on 2013 01 28

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.