Ocean State: The way forward for marriage equality in RI

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by John Perilli

Jarred by controversy and scandal, the Rhode Island General Assembly had a tumultuous two-year term in 2011 and 2012. To start the session off, the House and Senate compromised on marriage equality, passing an ameliorative civil unions bill that left advocacy groups on both sides grumbling. Then 38 Studios collapsed, and the House Democratic leadership team under Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) found itself the subject of unwanted focus. With a striking 43.7 percent of voters saying they would vote out the entire Assembly given the option, there was nothing House and Senate Democrats needed more than a resounding vote of confidence.

Last Tuesday, they got one.

Backed by President Barack Obama on the ticket, the Rhode Island Democratic Party gained four seats in the House of Representatives and three seats in the Senate. Their House majority expanded to an incredible 69 to 6, while their Senate hold strengthened to 32 to 5, not including one independent. Both freshman and senior Republicans fell, from four-term incumbent Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt of North Kingstown to young upstart Rep. Dan Reilly of Portsmouth. Others, like Rep. Doreen Costa (also of North Kingstown) and Sen. Nick Kettle (of Coventry, Scituate, and Foster), escaped by dangerously close margins.

This blue advance in the General Assembly paves the way for what will no doubt be the defining issue of this upcoming term: marriage equality — again. Unsatisfied with the deal he struck in 2011, Fox has vowed to bring a new marriage equality bill to a vote early in the 2013 session. Prominent advocacy groups like Marriage Equality Rhode Island and their PAC, Fight Back RI, hope that this will finally be the year Rhode Island matches the rest of New England and passes same-sex marriage, but it will all come down to how it plays out in the State House.

In the House, the bill will most likely be sent first to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by dependable progressive Democrat Edith Ajello of Providence. She will have to use her seniority and influence to keep the bill from being marked up too heavily, but if she can unify the Democrats on the committee early, then the bill should make it to the floor relatively intact.

The floor is where the obstacles will start. Socially conservative Democrats will take their chance here to tag the bill with religious exemptions, just as they did last time around. One such exemption in the civil unions law is the Corvese Amendment, named for Rep. Arthur Corvese (D-North Providence), which allows for any religious organization with a moral objection to civil unions to not recognize them. Rhode Island is heavily Catholic, so expect Corvese and fellow social conservatives like Rep. Karen Macbeth (D-Cumberland) to attack this session’s bill as well.

Next, the bill will be taken to a floor vote of the House. Speaker Fox maintains a firm grip on his caucus, and he will try to get the requisite 38 votes without making too many compromises. There will probably be some concessions, perhaps even a couple of strong amendments, but the Speaker should be able to get the votes he needs to pass the bill through the House.

The biggest potential block will come in the Senate. The leadership tandem of Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport and Jamestown) and Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio (D-North Providence) both opposed same-sex marriage last session. Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) is no friend of the bill either, and pro-marriage equality groups failed to pick him off in the September statewide primary. However, the marriage equality bloc in the Senate was bolstered by the election of Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland) and Catherine Cool Rumsey (D-Exeter), so there could be some chance of forcing the issue. There might also be an opportunity to steal some Republican votes, including Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-North Kingstown), who leans socially liberal.

If the bill passes the House and the Senate, it lands on Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s desk. Chafee says that he will sign a same-sex marriage bill if one is presented to him, so this will be a mostly ceremonial step. Chafee should be hopeful that he gets a chance to sign the bill — it could boost his disappointing approval rating and earn him some liberal votes heading into the 2014 statewide elections.

It may seem unfair, but the fate of marriage equality in Rhode Island will be decided out of the public eye. The battle will be won or lost by political bargaining and committee baseball, by which swing votes can be converted one way or the other. Expect interest groups to spend heavily on lobbyists next year, as they try to get their feet in the door and influence those key undecided legislators. Most of the action will take place inside the State House, from the corridors and back rooms to the offices, chambers, and committee halls.

Unless, of course, Speaker Fox decides the legislative effort is hopeless and turns to his last resort: forcing marriage equality onto the ballot. The states of Maryland, Washington, and Maine last week passed historic referenda legalizing same-sex marriage by popular vote, and Rhode Island could certainly follow suit. A September poll by WPRI showed that 56 percent of Rhode Islanders support same-sex marriage, so there is a strong chance of such a measure passing. Fox might not want to risk this, but if it comes down to using the ballot or failing, he will surely take marriage equality any way he can get it. So if the same-sex marriage bill hits too many obstacles in the legislature, supporters should still sit tight. They might be voting for it themselves sooner or later.

 

photo of Speaker Gordon Fox by the Rhode Island House of Representatives