Mass. Marriage Foe Splits

Thomas Finneran, Democratic House speaker, retires

Flush from a strong showing in the September 14 primary elections, defenders of the 2003 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage rights are hailing the abrupt resignation September 28 of state House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a leader in the effort to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to overturn gay marriage rights there.

At the same time, same-sex marriage advocates are warning that their fight must continue in numerous state legislative contests on November 2 in order to prevent any erosion in the position of elected officials willing to stand up for the court ruling.

The newly elected state legislature will meet in January to re-consider the amendment language it approved this year by a vote of 105 to 92 in a combined 200-member House and Senate session meeting in a special constitutional convention. Approval by a second consecutive session of the Legislature would put the question before voters in the November 2006 elections, two and a half years after gay marriages began in Massachusetts.

“Clearly we are pleased with the leadership change, but we have always known that the largest task is ahead of us,” said Marty Rouse, the leader of MassEquality, an ad hoc group of two dozen organizations working to defend last November’s court decision. “The main goal is re-electing our friends, as we did in the primary.”

“The king is dead. Long live the king,” said Sue Hyde, who heads up the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Cambridge office. “I wish that the Finneran resignation were the solution to all of the potential problems and pitfalls we will face in the next term of the Legislature. But that would not be an accurate read of the situation. We did well in the primary election. But, we face, on November 2, a phalanx of Republican candidates facing off against Democratic representatives that could have an impact on the marriage issue next year.”

Gay marriage advocates are pleased with their performance in the September 14 primary, but wary of the push that Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, an ardent foe of the high court ruling, is putting into electing members of his party to the Legislature, now controlled in lopsided majorities in both houses by Democrats.

Supporters of gay marriage variously claimed between two and four picks up in the primary. Rouse said that two insurgent Democrats, both in their 20s and both supporters of same-sex marriage, knocked out key Democratic allies of Finneran—Vincent P. Ciampa of Somerville and Mark A. Howland of New Bedford. Both primary victors face only token Republican opposition in November.

Hyde said that another Democratic primary winner for an open seat, also in a district where Republicans are not a factor, represents a third pick up for the marriage advocates. Rep. Michael Festa, a Melrose Democrat who has been an unbending supporter of gay marriage, told Gay City News there were two such primary wins, bringing the total number of legislators publicly committed to the constitutional amendment down to 101, just barely a majority.

Festa added that he is aware of “members who voted for the amendment [this year] that have already indicated privately that they will change their vote next year.”

Despite Festa’s upbeat headcount, he echoed Rouse and Hyde’s cautions about the general election.

Referring to the new speaker, whose was elected on September 29, he said, “There is absolutely no question that with Sal DiMasi, who is absolutely aligned with those of us who want no discrimination in our constitution, that we have achieved an extraordinarily positive development, in distinct contrast to what we had before. There is also absolutely no question also that there are many districts that have tight races, where the Republicans are starting to talk about this issue.”

According to Rouse, the Republicans, funded by what Hyde called a “bucket-full of money” raised by Romney and including several wealthy self-financed candidates, have put up to 20 legislative seats in play for November, an unusually high number.

Rouse and Festa offered different assessments of how the gay marriage issue is playing out in the campaign. According to Rouse, Romney, concluding that the Massachusetts public was evenly split on the issue, put the word out to his roster of candidates not to discuss the issue, even though they solidly back the governor’s effort to overturn the court ruling. Instead, the governor has focused on charges that Massachusetts is hamstrung by one-party dominance of the Legislature. An ongoing federal investigation into charges that Finneran lied under oath about the most recent redistricting plan in the state fueled the governor’s charges that the Democrats in charge are plagued by corruption.

But Festa said that in just the several days since Finneran announced his departure, word has come to him from Democratic colleagues facing tough challengers that Republicans are beginning to talk about gay marriage again, suggesting that DiMasi will block the required second vote on the amendment proposal.

Rouse explained that the November contests are important not only in determining the head count on the current amendment language, but also in shaping perceptions about whether support for same-sex marriage carries political liabilities. The strong showing in the primary was helpful, but the defeat of pro-marriage incumbents in November could have the opposite effect.

“We are potentially on the ropes in the general election,” he said. “We are bracing possibly for losses. It is hard to say how many we can [afford to] lose. It is a matter of perception. When can the GOP say that this issue is political poison?”

Finneran’s adamant opposition to gay marriage, however, is widely viewed as having contributed to his downfall. When the Legislature met in special session in the spring, Senate Pres. Robert E. Travaglini, also a Democrat, believed that the leadership plan was to approve an amendment that would overturn the marriage ruling, but institute civil unions giving gay and lesbian couples all the state rights of marriage. Turning the opening day gavel over to Finneran as a courtesy, the Senate president watched in anger as the speaker proceeded to mount an effort to pass an alternative amendment that would enable the state to institute civil unions, but not require it. The language finally adopted largely reflected Travaglini’s views, but the Senate leader did not forget the slight, and his animosity further eroded Finneran’s tentative grasp on power in the House.

Should same-sex advocates beat back the effort to approve the amendment’s language in January, no referendum could be held in 2006. It is widely expected that if marriage opponents fail, they would go to an alternative plan that would allow a referendum demanded by voter petition to proceed to the ballot with only a 25 percent, rather than majority, vote in two consecutive sessions of the Legislature. The earliest date that amendment question could face voters, however, is November 2008, after four and a half years of gay marriage in Massachusetts.

The Coalition for Marriage, the leading group in Massachusetts fighting against same-sex marriage, did not return a call seeking comment.

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