slides: The 10 People Who Will Decide the Fate of Same Sex Marriage in Rhode Island
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
At the same time, a newly-formed group of a number of prominent religious leaders called the “Faith Alliance to Preserve the Sanctity of Marriage as Established by God” is expected to meet at the State House to express their opposition to the legislation.
Political experts across the state all agree the bill should have no trouble getting through the House but that’s where the real battle begins.
And while it seems the odds of the legislation being passed are greater than ever before in Rhode Island, the fate of same sex marriage in the Ocean State will ultimately come down to 10 people who have either taken a hard stance on the issue or remain as key question marks heading into the debate.
Speaker of the House
Perhaps the most outspoken proponent of gay marriage on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Gordon Fox, the first openly gay House speaker in the United States, took heat in 2011 when he made a push for civil unions in Rhode Island.
The problem wasn’t the civil unions themselves, it was that Fox had initially pledged to pass gay marriage as a whole in the state and the bill that was ultimately negotiated was more of a compromise than his supporters had hoped for.
In the two years since that bill was signed into law by Governor Chafee, the speaker has not shied away from the topic and has gone on the record multiple times to say he intended to bring the discussion back to the State House. Fox even went as far as saying that the issue was one of the main reasons he ran for re-election.
"Two years ago, Speaker Fox made it clear there were not enough votes on the House floor to pass same-sex marriage,” House Communications Director Larry Berman said. “He forged a compromise to enable same-sex couples who wished to enter into a civil union to have the same rights and privileges as married couples. With a new House membership in place, Speaker Fox is now confident that the votes are secured to gain House passage."
M. Teresa Paiva Weed
President of the Senate
Long considered one of the main obstacles to the passage of gay marriage in Rhode Island, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed made news last month when she pledged to allow a judiciary committee vote on the topic if a bill passed in the House.
Paiva Weed, who in the past has opposed same-sex marriage, appointed that Senate Judiciary Committee last week and anyone looking to get an idea of how it will rule based on its members was left disappointed as the committee had a strong balance between individuals who have come out for and against the topic in the past.
Some believe the move was a strategic one for Paiva Weed, who may stand to have the upper hand in negotiations with Fox because the House Speaker has taken such a strong stance on the issue and would suffer the most politically from the bill's defeat.
Either way, it's clear that the bill will be decided in the Senate and whether gay marriage is passed outright as law or put up as a referendum for voters to decide, a move both Fox and Governor Chafee have strongly opposed, it's clear Paiva Weed will be at the front and center of the debate.
Executive Director of Marriage Equality of Rhode Island
For six years as a State Representative from 2004-2010, Ray Sullivan co-sponsored same-sex marriage legislation and tried to get it passed in Rhode Island but, ultimately, he could do nothing to advance the issues as his colleagues refused to broach the potentially politically-damaging topic.
It wasn’t until 2011 that the subject really arrived at the forefront of RI politics and, by then, Sullivan had taken a position as executive direction of Marriage Equality Rhode Island.
Not surprisingly, Sullivan was strongly against the compromise reached by Fox and in the time since the bill was passed, has worked hard to bring the debate back to the top of people’s minds on Capitol Hill.
Sullivan and his group of supporters ran a targeted campaign this past November with unions and other progressive groups to target Senators they felt were against gay marriage and said the results of his efforts led to more pro-equality members of the legislature in 2013 than at any time ever before.
Those results give Sullivan political leverage and could sway some politicians on the fence on the issue in what is already likely to be a close vote in the Senate.
Rev. Thomas J. Tobin
Bishop of the Diocese of Providence
In recent years, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin has emerged as one of the leading voices in Rhode Island against same sex marriage.
In an interview in 2011, prior to the passage of civil unions in the state, Tobin hinted that he was opposed to the unions because of where he felt it would lead.
As Tobin’s words have seemingly come true, at least in that civil unions have proven not enough to slow down those in favor of same-sex marriage, the Bishop has stepped up his opposition to the social issue, citing his strong religious beliefs that leave no room for compromise.
“We think it is an ill-advised attempt to redefine the very basic parameters of marriage as they’ve existed from the very beginning of mankind—as the union of one man and one woman designed to create new life and to encourage the love of the spouses,” Tobin stated during the civil union discussion.
Tobin has been quick to respond publically every time the subject of gay marriage comes up, even criticizing President Obama last week for endorsing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, and with a large religious core of voters in Rhode Island in his corner and a strong voice that seems undaunted by political pressure from his opponents, Tobin’s views could prove influential if for no other reason than the fact that he has no fear in expressing them on a regular basis.
Tobin will no doubt be very active publically if, and when, a decision looms on the legislation.
Governor of Rhode Island
One of the biggest fears of many pro-gay marriage proponents, and one of the biggest hopes for those against it, is the very possible scenario that the General Assembly ultimately decides to avoid ruling on the topic of same sex marriage altogether and, instead, turns the decision over to voters in a state referendum.
At least one bill calling for such a vote is expected to be introduced this session by Providence’s Sen. Frank Ciccone but it may not matter if Governor Chafee follows through with his promise last week to veto any bill that takes the decision out of the hands of state lawmakers.
Chafee, a same-sex marriage supporter, said last week that lawmakers should be allowed to decide the issue and are elected to do just that and a veto by him on any bill to avoid a vote at the General Assembly level would be a big setback to those who support sending the measure to the polls and would most likely force a decision at the state level.
Senator, District 29 (Warwick)
Second perhaps only to Paiva Weed, Democrat Michael McCaffrey will play one of the biggest roles in whether or not a gay marriage bill passes the Senate, long considered ground zero for the debate.
McCaffrey is opposed to gay marriage and his win in a September primary over challenger Laura Pisaturo, who was supported by the pro gay marriage group Fight Back RI, was viewed as a key setback for the bill’s chances in that chamber.
McCaffrey is a chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and passage by that particular group is the first obstacle any gay marriage bill would face. If McCaffrey can get enough support on the committee, the topic of gay marriage could be spiked before it ever even reaches the full Senate.
Senator, District 15 (Pawtucket, North Providence)
Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush, an openly gay senator currently serving her second-term, has taken up the fight for same sex marriage in the Senate and introduced the bill to that chamber last week.
Nesselbush says the issue is one that is “intensely personal” for her as well as thousands of other Rhode Islanders.
“After many years, I have finally found the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with, the woman I want to marry,” she said in a statement last week. “We are both spiritual and want to deepen and strengthen our devotion. We are deeply in love, and are hoping and praying for marriage equality so we can tie the knot. But this is not about me or us. This is about the thousands of loving gay and lesbian couples who want and deserve the right to marry,”
Nesselbush could sway undecided members in the Senate to vote in favor of the legislation, which she feels is supported by “most Rhode Islanders.”
“I implore my colleagues to join me in casting a vote on the right side of history,” she said. “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.”
Regional Cordinator for the National Organization for Marriage
As the regional head of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)-Rhode Island, Christopher Plante is at the forefront of one of the most vocal groups against gay marriage in the state.
Plante and his organization have already begun gathering support to block the bill currently before the House, saying it “threatens to fundamentally redefine marriage, the most basic building block of civil society in Rhode Island.”
In a statement to supporters, Plante said “people of faith” would suffer from a move to legalize gay marriage in the state.
“Rhode Island politicians backing same-sex marriage claim that they will protect religious liberty even while fundamentally redefining our most important social institution,” he said. “But experience elsewhere has shown that this just isn’t true — there will be consequences, and people of faith will pay the price first.”
How much sway Plante and NOM ultimately have remains to be seen but there’s no doubt the group will be very vocal in the lead-up to any vote and put as much pressure on key lawmakers as possible to stop the change, beginning with today’s rally at the State House.
Senator, District 18 (East Providence, Pawtucket)
One of the biggest question marks in the entire gay marriage debate in Rhode Island, William Conley, a first-time senator from East Providence, has yet to come out publically in favor of or against the social issue and, already, some are calling him a potential swing vote on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
With that body playing the biggest role in how far the bill gets with the General Assembly, how Conley votes may ultimately decide the bill’s fate in that chamber and, if nothing else, his refusal to take a position leaves its fate unclear heading into the hearings.
It was reported last week that a former colleague of Conley’s on the East Providence Town Council believes he will vote ‘no’ on the issue given his opinion on the matter two years ago but gay marriage advocates, perhaps hoping to sway him to their side, have said they don’t believe he has made his mind up and won’t vote one way or the other until he’s read the actual bill being presented.
Of course, Conley could do like many General Assembly members and make their decision based on how they feel their district would vote and, if he does, it would be hard to ignore data that suggests East Providence is a heavily-religious community where 82 percent of the population identifies as belonging to the Catholic Church.
Senator, District 5 (Providence)
Factoring Conley as a potential swing vote, the Judiciary Committee currently appears to have five supporters of same-sex marriage and four opponents. That number may change if Providence senator Paul Jabour changes from his expected pro-gay marriage stance.
During last year’s election, Jabour said he personally opposes gay marriage but would keep his personal politics out of the decision, choosing instead to base his vote on how his community feels.
“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.”
Regardless of how he votes, Jabour is clearly one of the key people to watch as the battle over gay marriage in Rhode Island takes shape and one of the 10 who will ultimately decide its fate.
- Rhode Island Gears for Gay Marriage Battle in 2013
- Marriage Equality RI Director Ray Sullivan: 13 To Watch in RI in 2013
- PowerPlayer: State Senator Donna Nesselbush
- Gay Marriage Bill Introduced in Rhode Island
- 10 Biggest Political Issues for 2013
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