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Analysis

Coordinated strategy propelled passage of Rhode Island gay marriage bill

Thursday, April 25, 2013
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Phone banks, an army of volunteers and alliances with organized labor, business leaders and religious clergy propelled marriage equality to victory in Rhode Island this week, a savvy and coordinated strategy that relied on growing public support and old-fashioned bare-knuckle politics.

Gay marriage legislation had failed every year in Rhode Island since 1997, leaving the heavily Catholic state the lone holdout in New England as the five other states changed their marriage laws.

That’s soon set to change. The state Senate voted Wednesday to allow same-sex marriage, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee plans to sign the bill into law following a final, procedural vote in the House next week.

State Sen. Donna Nesselbush reacts seconds after the R.I. senate passed a same-sex marriage bill on Wednesday. Nesselbush was the main sponsor of the bill.
Photo: Steven Senne, AP

The successful campaign could serve as a model for similar efforts in other states and reflects the increasingly sophisticated political strategy driving what just two decades ago was dismissed as a fringe issue with little public support, advocates and lawmake rs alike say.

“So many people did so much work to get us here,” said state Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, a gay man who lobbied for the issue before becoming a lawmaker himself. “We never gave up, and kept getting stronger, kept at it, kept getting closer and closer each year.”

Opponents, however, say their defeat in Rhode Island was less about dogged political strategy than it was the national conversation on gay marriage.

“It’s a campaign that’s been promoted by Hollywood, by the news media, by educational institutions,” said Scott Spear, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage’s Rhode Island chapter. “I think the local group was just on that wave. They didn’t create it, they just rode it.”

Nesselbush (right) confers with State Sen. President Chief of Staff Tom Coderre prior to the vote.

Nesselbush shakes hands with state Sen. Paul Fogarty.

Nesselbush (right) congratulated by state Sen. Juan Pichardo.
Photos by Steven Senne, AP

Rhode Island will be the 10th state to allow gay marriage when the legislation takes effect Aug. 1. Supporters in Delaware and Illinois are also hoping to pass gay marriage this year, and efforts are underway in other states, including New Jersey, Or egon and Minnesota.

Polls show support has surged since 1996, when Gallup found that 27 percent of Americans backed same-sex marriage. Now Gallup finds that 53 percent support giving gay and lesbian couples the right to marry.

The momentum is clear in Rhode Island. Two years ago, gay marriage legislation didn’t even get a vote in the General Assembly. This year, it passed the House 51-19 and the Senate 26-12.

“We are close to the end of a journey that began in 1997,” said Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, which led the push for the legislation. “When we began this campaign in January, many thought we’d never succeed in the Senate.”

The strategy that ultimately proved successful began two years ago after the previous significant effort to pass gay marriage fell apart. House Speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay, abandoned his push for gay marriage after it became obvious the legislation wouldn’t pass the Senate, where Se nate President Teresa Paiva Weed was a formidable opponent. It was a bitter defeat, and advocates vowed to focus on electing candidates who supported gay marriage in the 2012 elections.

Rather than court one-issue candidates, marriage advocates formed ties with the AFL-CIO, environmental activists and other progressive groups. By teaming up, the coalition was able to pool their support for candidates with wider voter appeal – and who also happened to support gay marriage. The strategy worked, and in November several new gay marriage supporters were elected to the House and, more significantly, the state Senate.

Encouraged by those gains, Fox vowed to hold a House vote on gay marriage in the first month of this year’s legislative session. The bill’s easy passage so early in the session allowed supporters to focus their attention on the Senate.

Though she opposes gay marriage, and ultimately voted against it, Paiva Weed gave supporters a break when she announ ced that she would allow the issue to proceed through the Senate without her interference. Supporters had worried that despite election gains, their efforts might be stymied if Paiva Weed bottled up the bill in committee or refused to allow a vote.

Meanwhile, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage rallied support from labor leaders, religious leaders and top officials like Chafee, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Treasurer Gina Raimondo. Each week, the group rolled out new endorsements from business leaders and local mayors.

Hundreds of volunteers manned phone banks and wrote emails and letters to put pressure on undecided lawmakers in the Senate. Some lawmakers reported receiving hundreds of emails and phone calls. So many people signed on to help that Rhode Islanders United for Marriage had to relocate to bigger offices. Sullivan said his group made more than 12,000 phone calls, knocked on 25,000 doors and mailed nearly 2,000 letters to lawmakers.

Some of the efforts weren’t well-received. Sen. Harold Metts, a Providence Democrat who voted no, said he was called a bigot by some gay marriage supporters.

“This is America, and we are entitled to our opinions and our religious liberty afforded to us in the Constitution,” he said. “It’s ironic that those who sought tolerance and acceptance are so intolerant of others’ religious views.”

Several senators who had been undecided said they voted yes after hearing the personal stories of gay and lesbian constituents. For Catholic lawmakers, voting yes meant going against the wishes of Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin, who called gay marriage immoral and unnecessary.

Democratic Sen. James Doyle of Pawtucket said he had always planned to vote no until this year, when he was convinced by the story of a friend who is a lesbian. He said he was warned by a senior Catholic official that his vote could hurt his chances of getting into heaven.

“I’ve got to be honest with yo u folks,” he told his colleagues during Wednesday’s debate. “If the first thing our lord asks me is, ‘Why did you vote that way on same-sex marriage?’ then I’m doing pretty good.”

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