When same-sex marriage legislation died in the General Assembly last summer without so much as a vote, attention focused on openly gay Speaker of the House Gordon Fox. Had he done enough? Had he pulled the plug too soon? Had he failed the gay and lesbian community?
So when Fox announced recently that he would bring gay nuptials up for a vote early next year, it was tempting to focus on his play for redemption, for legacy. But if that's part of the story, it is only part. The truth is Rhode Island's same-sex marriage fight is centered not in the House, but in the Senate.
Fox spiked the gay nuptials bill last year, in no small part, because he thought it would die in the upper chamber. And if he's able to get it through the House next year, as expected, it'll be the Senate playing the determinative role again.
At the moment, the terrain there doesn't look all that inviting for advocates.
Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed is an opponent of same-sex nuptials. So is her second-in-command, Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Michael McCaffrey, who has jurisdiction over the bill, is opposed too.
Moreover, a Phoenix analysis of the full chamber suggests that about half of the state Senate is anti-gay marriage, with roughly a third in favor, and the balance in the toss-up category.
For all the momentum surrounding the gay marriage fight — from President Obama's endorsement of same-sex nuptials to Fox's recent announcement — the reality is pretty stark: if the Senate remains largely unchanged next year, gay marriage advocates have little shot at victory.
That's why the state's last great civil rights fight may be won or lost — at least in the short term — with this fall's elections.
'A CHEAP DATE'
There was a time when the country's gay rights activists focused almost exclusively on national politics. And until President Obama's reluctant activism took hold, they were mostly disappointed with the results.
But in recent years, under the leadership of reclusive Colorado technology magnate Tim Gill, wealthy gay donors have grown increasingly sophisticated about electoral politics — targeting low-cost, state-level races that can tip the balance on same-sex marriage and other key issues.
Gill's circle of donors have dabbled in Rhode Island politics: donating to various legislative candidates in the last election cycle and supporting advocacy group Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI).
But the Gill Action Fund's marquee effort, to date, is its Fight Back New York campaign, which helped knock off three state senators and set the stage for passage of same-sex marriage legislation there.
Ray Sullivan, executive director of MERI, says his organization is patterning its electoral effort this fall after Fight Back New York; indeed, Marriage Equality's political action committee recently changed its name to Fight Back Rhode Island.
Sullivan, a former state representative who is considered among the sharpest political operatives in Rhode Island, says the "fight back" meme can empower gay marriage proponents and serve as an effective fundraising tool. And there are other lessons to be drawn from the Empire State campaign, too: the focus on a handful of winnable races, for instance.