Ocean State: How the East was won

by John Perilli

2013 has already been a watershed year for the same-sex marriage movement — the practice has been legalized in three states and is coming to a head in two others — but the tale of Rhode Island’s passage stands out from the two others in Delaware and Minnesota. Most commonly, the legalization of same-sex marriage is presented as a long march of progress followed by the triumphant bursting of the dam, but in Rhode Island it appears to have happened differently.

First, consider the margins of passage in the three states. In Delaware, same-sex marriage was approved by the State House of Representatives 23 to 18, and passed the Senate 12 to 9 — a close vote in both houses. Minnesota’s votes were slightly safer but still competitive: 75 to 59 in the House, and 37 to 30 in the Senate.

Then, there are Rhode Island’s votes: 51 to 19 in the House, then 26 to 12 in the State Senate. These are both steep majorities, and in the House the issue passed quickly — the vote was held in January, leaving less time for advocacy groups to needle individual voters as they did in the Senate. Considering the issue was judged dead in the water in 2011, the year of the controversial civil unions compromise, this is a stunning turnaround.

To explain this, one could point out the electioneering efforts of same-sex marriage advocates in 2012, where the influential pro-marriage equality PAC Fight Back RI stormed the statewide primaries in September trying to unseat opponents of gay marriage. Advocates achieved notable successes in the election of Sens. Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland) and Catherine Cool Rumsey (D-Exeter and West Greenwich), but there were also setbacks. Laura Pisaturo, a strident voice on the side of same-sex marriage, failed to defeat powerful Senate Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey (D-Warwick) in a primary. Sitting Rep. Jon Brien was shocked by same-sex marriage opponent Stephen Casey (D-Woonsocket), and Rep. Peter Petrarca was ousted by Gregory Costantino (D-Lincoln) after an ugly election. As far as simply replacing opponents with supporters, the campaign was not a complete success.

Even considering total turnover, the wide majorities in the House and Senate are not fully explained. Between the 2011-12 and 2013-14 state legislative sessions, 16 House seats and 8 Senate seats turned over.

Let’s assume for a second, on a razor’s edge, that every departing legislator opposed same-sex marriage and that every incoming one supported it. Without any turnover at all, the House vote would close to a 35-35 tie (with five not voting) and change the Senate vote to 20-18 against. Obviously, this assumption is not true, as it excludes a number of departing supporters including Sen. Rhoda Perry of Providence and Rep. Rene Menard, both social liberals, while also leaving out some incoming opponents such as Rep. Antonio Giarrusso (R-East Greenwich) and Sen. Frank Lombardi (D-Cranston). Adjusting for this, it appears that the issue could potentially have passed in 2011, almost with the same margin as it did this year in Delaware.

Another element some will point to is the change in public opinion on same-sex marriage in recent years, as well as President Barack Obama’s presidential endorsement of marriage equality in 2012. Rhode Island has been a bellwether of same-sex marriage support: A Brown University poll conducted in late February found that a full 60.4 percent of Rhode Islanders favored allowing same-sex couples to marry.

This seems like evidence of a broad shift in public opinion, that is, until it is put in context. In May 2009, a similar Brown University poll found that support for a bill legalizing same-sex marriage was also around 60 percent. At least in the short term (and especially just considering the time between 2011 and 2013), it would appear that public opinion has warmed only slightly to the idea of same-sex marriage. This is not to imply that public opinion has not changed at all on same-sex marriage in the past four years — these are only two polls, chosen for similarity across time. At least in Rhode Island, though, the change in opinion was not drastic enough to create the broad 2013 majorities all by itself, especially after the issue fell dead in 2011.

The story of how same-sex marriage passed in Rhode Island is thus less a forceful bursting of the dam and more an unlocking of it. If the 51-19 vote in the House and the 26-12 vote in the Senate cannot be sufficiently explained by short-term shifts in constituents’ opinions or by turnover, the support for same-sex marriage must have already been there, latent, even in 2011. It was just a matter of coaxing it out.

What put same-sex marriage over the top, then, were the relentless public awareness and legislative calling campaigns that raised the relevance of same-sex marriage to both constituents and legislators. Keeping the status quo on an unimportant issue holds little to no political penalties for incumbents. However, as soon as that issue matters to constituents and becomes personally and politically relevant to lawmakers, their stance will shift, and a more illuminated preference will emerge from beneath the status quo. Look no further than the case of Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman for an example of this effect. It is akin to the phenomenon in political science literature known as “enlightened preferences,” which shows how the preferences of voters will become more “enlightened” as they learn how candidates stand on issues important to them. In this case, it happened in reverse — legislators took the cue from voters, and their resulting preferences passed the landmark law.

Same-sex marriage advocates made thousands of calls to Rhode Island senators, and the media stoked the blaze as well. The electioneering of marriage equality advocates might not have ousted all their opponents, but they certainly scared a good few incumbents that the issue was becoming a wedge. After receiving hundreds of calls each and realizing that same-sex marriage was becoming a salient primary election issue, many Rhode Island lawmakers realigned their preferences and voted in the affirmative.

As more states continue to consider same-sex marriage legislation, keep an eye out for this effect. Sometimes, finding the right key to unlock the door is more effective than battering it down. If constituents can find ways to make same-sex marriage personally relevant to their representatives and show them that they can and will vote on it, laws and history will be changed.


photo by Eric Bennett: bit.ly/11G0Crx