Romney Bows Out in Massachusetts

Anti-gay marriage governor won’t run again in ’06, but prez race expected

When the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, announced last week that he would not seek re-election in 2006, most speculation focused on when he would declare his candidacy for the U.S. presidency. Absent from the news was what Romney’s decision meant for gay marriage in Massachusetts, the issue upon which Romney, as an ardent opponent, used to burnish his national image, and made a central election issue in the state.

Massachusetts is the only state that allows same-sex marriage. In 2003, while Romney was governor, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that under the Massachusetts state Constitution gays and lesbians were legally entitled to marry, and that the provisions to do such had to be enacted within six months.

Plopped right in the middle of the nation’s most controversial subject, Romney became a vocal same-sex marriage opponent, even as the Massachusetts Legislature fulfilled the court’s order. He urged the Legislature to pass an amendment banning same-sex marriage. Attorney General Tom Reilly, though a Democrat, argued, unsuccessfully, before the SJC that such unions should remain illegal at least until the Legislature acted on the amendment.

Romney did succeed in containing the issue by invoking an obscure 1913 law that prohibited non-residents from being married in Massachusetts if the marriage would not be recognized in their home state, effectively barring out-of-state same-sex couples from marrying in Massachusetts and then suing their home states for marriage rights. The SJC heard a case against the law in October but has not yet issued a decision.

Romney has threatened to veto any attempt by the Legislature to overturn the 1913 law, which was an accommodation to other states, many of them in the South, that had racist miscegenation laws.

During his tenure Romney has also lent public support to those Bay State residents organizing against gay marriage. He endorsed the Coalition for Marriage and Family, a group of local and national conservative organizations including the Massachusetts Family Institute and the Family Research Council. The Coalition has successfully gathered enough signatures through their petition effort known as VoteOnMarriage.org to place a new anti-gay marriage amendment before the Legislature again in January. An effort to substitute gay marriages with civil unions in a 2006 referendum fell apart when the Legislature earlier this year refused to give its second consecutive majority approval to the ballot question. The new push, because it was initiated by voters, not the Legislature, requires only a 25 percent approval in two consecutive joint sessions of the state House and Senate, and if approved by voters in 2008 would eliminate gay marriage, but not enact civil unions.

But once Romney is out of office, Massachusetts could have a more liberal governor who might decline to continue enforcement of the 1913 law. Where goes the resistance to same-sex marriage?

“Massachusetts without Romney is a good thing,” said Josh Friedes, a board member for Freedom to Marry, a nationwide coalition of pro-marriage groups founded by former Lambda Legal litigator Evan Wolfson, that is fighting to preserving the status quo in Massachusetts. “Romney has been a real cheerleader for the right’s efforts, and has shown no compassion for gay and lesbian families or gay and lesbian youth.”

Friedes added that Romney’s decision proves his opposition to gay rights, a stance that the Republican governor has worked to highlight in anticipation of a Republican primary bid for which conservative votes could be key.

Marc Solomon, policy director at Massachusetts Equality, another marriage equality advocacy coalition, made up of groups on the ground in that state, said ever since it became obvious that Romney was polishing his credentials for a national election his influence in the state has waned.

“The fact that he’s appealing to Republicans in states like South Carolina has lessened his clout,” Solomon said. “It’s clear he sees them as his constituents rather than the people of Massachusetts.”

Romney has not shied away from positioning himself in the national debate around gay marriage. He testified before the U.S. Senate regarding the numerous deleterious affects gay marriage would have on American society when an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage was considered. He has also toured the country, making speeches to Republican groups in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, and has ascended to chairman of the Republican Governors Association. During a talk in Washington, D.C., he called himself “a red speck in a blue state.”

There is clear evidence of his declining influence in Massachusetts, at least regarding social issues. In 2004, Romney actively recruited eight candidates to challenge Democratic incumbents in the state Legislature. Despite his endorsement, significant campaigning, and monetary donations, all eight GOP candidates lost. They lost even though their opponents all favored same-sex marriage. Overall, Republicans had a net loss three seats in last year’s election.

In 2005, Romney vetoed an emergency contraception bill because he believed it might cause the abortion of fertilized embryos. His veto was overruled.

Even if Romney’s ability to affect the marriage debate in Massachusetts is on the downswing, there does seem to be a significant number of Bay State residents opposed to the advent of gay marriages there.

“The amendment has a life of its own regardless of who is in the governor’s office,” said Lisa Barstow, spokesperson for VoteOnMarriage.org “We are grateful for his support, but nothing he did really impacted the landscape on this. It’s obvious Massachusetts citizens want the right to vote on this.”

Indeed, VoteOnMarriage.org gathered in only 60 days 170,000 signatures for an initiative to bring the amendment banning same-sex marriage to the Legislature.

“We broke all records on the number of signatures gathered for any voter initiative,” Barstow said.

This past Tuesday, the state’s secretary certified the petition’s validity, ensuring the Massachusetts House and Senate will jointly vote on the amendment in January. If only a quarter of legislators approve the amendment, a similar joint session of the Legislature will consider the measure again in the 2007-08 session, and if approved again by just a quarter of the body, will move on to a statewide referendum in November 2008. The Legislature’s votes on a citizen initiative effort are not subject to gubernatorial veto.

Whether or not Romney’s opposition has perpetuated the fight against same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, his resignation is seen as part of the sea change in reaction to his tenure.

“We have far more pressing issues to deal with than this and the people of Massachusetts know this,” said Stephen Driscoll, co-chair of the National Stonewall Democrats and the Bay State Stonewall Democrats. “He symbolized the GOP’s failure in this state. He could never work with the House and Senate, Democrats have increased their hold over the Legislature. And the co-sponsors of the original amendment defeated earlier this year have also said they are not running for re-election.”

Driscoll said the large number of signatures gathered by VoteOnMarriage.org was the result of money from large organizations such as the Family Research Council used to hire professional signature-gathering firms, outfits he claimed that sometimes employed deceptive tactics.

“Massachusetts is the beachhead,” Driscoll said. “The other side knows that if same-sex marriage is finally accepted here, it bodes very ill for them trying to kill it overall.”

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