Ocean State: Shakeup in the State Senate

by John Perilli

Same-sex marriage bills for the 2013 term have already been introduced in both chambers of the Rhode Island General Assembly. With 42 co-sponsors out of 75 legislators in the House of Representatives, it appears that passage in the lower chamber is only a matter of time. The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by progressive Edith Ajello (Providence), unanimously passed the bill Tuesday and Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) has pledged a floor vote on the issue soon.

The situation is far less certain in the State Senate.

Both Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport and Jamestown) and Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio (D-Providence) oppose same-sex marriage, but before they get to vote, the bill must pass the 10-member Senate Judiciary Committee. It was thus with great anticipation that political observers statewide watched President Paiva-Weed’s office for the new Senate Judiciary lineup.

Last Tuesday, the roster was finally released. Here is how the votes will likely fall:

Supporters of Same Sex Marriage

Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-Pawtucket)

Sen. Stephen Archambault (D-Smithfield)

Sen. Erin Lynch (D-Warwick)

Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-East Greenwich)

Opponents of Same Sex Marriage

Sen. Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick, Committee Chairman)

Sen. Harold Metts (D-Providence)

Sen. Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston)

Sen. Leonidas “Lou” Raptakis (D-Coventry)

Note: Sen. Raptakis stated that he would vote to support a same sex marriage bill if it were passed as a ballot measure.

This leaves two swing votes: Sen. Paul Jabour (D-Providence, Committee Vice-Chair) and freshman Sen. William Conley (D-East Providence). Conley, a former member of the East Providence City Council, is officially undecided, although some City Council insiders report that his vote leans towards a “nay.” Jabour’s position is more complicated.

Last September, Jabour was locked in a competitive primary with education activist Maura Kelly, an unequivocal supporter of same-sex marriage. Jabour personally opposes same-sex marriage, but at a candidates’ forum two weeks before the Sept. 11 primary, he claimed he would support same-sex marriage if he believed his constituents did. Marriage Equality Rhode Island apparently took him at his word. Their influential PAC, Fight Back RI, decided to remain neutral in the race rather than endorse Kelly, and Jabour won passage to an uncontested general election.

Lobbyists will doubtless converge around both Conley and Jabour once the Senate takes up same-sex marriage. For Conley’s vote, it will be a relatively straightforward matter of persuasion. For Jabour, though, it will be all about convincing him that his district supports the bill.

Unfortunately, the result of the 2012 presidential election in Jabour’s district isn’t a good compass — the effect of party identification drowns out any hope of identifying issue voters. The closest an election came to showing how Jabour’s constituents lean on social issues was the 2010 Governor’s race. Democrats were split between their party’s conservative nominee, Frank Caprio, and left-leaning independent Lincoln Chafee. Jabour’s district broke for Chafee, 46 percent, but a larger 49.4 percent was split between Caprio (38.3) and Republican businessman John Robitaille (10.9). The results are illuminating, for sure, but still indecisive. One wonders if a polling agency will step up and fill the void soon — a clear advantage for either side could turn Jabour’s vote.

In order for same-sex marriage to pass the Judiciary Committee, both Jabour’s and Conley’s votes must be converted. A 5-5 tie is as good as a defeat: The Senate leaders maintain ex officio voting rights on every committee, and their tiebreaking vote will most likely be “nay.”

Even if the bill passes committee, or President Paiva-Weed and company decide to break a tie in the affirmative, nothing is guaranteed. Two years ago, when the divisive Civil Unions Bill was brought up for a vote, it barely slipped through with a 21-16 vote. While the Senate became more liberal after the 2012 election, supporters of civil unions are not necessarily supporters of same-sex marriage. As a last resort, the Senate might consider passing the bill as a ballot measure (which would change swing votes like Sen. Raptakis), but there is no guarantee the House would approve this in turn.

Same-sex marriage looks certain to be a long, session-defining battle. It might get bounced back and forth between the houses, it might be defeated outright, or it might find a path through the Senate and onto Gov. Chafee’s desk. Do not expect an easy outcome however events turn out.


photo by Jef Nickerson: http://www.flickr.com/photos/woneffe/4048189253/