"Ray Sullivan deserves enormous accolades for trying to turn around a rather dysfunctional organization," says Bill Fischer, MERI's former spokesman, who resigned this week out of frustration over the organization's direction. "But you can't change the world in eight weeks."

Among Fischer's biggest critiques of MERI: a hesitance to engage, directly, with Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, which joined with the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island (NOM-RI), the local chapter of the leading anti-gay nuptials group in the country, to mount an aggressive lobbying effort from the start of the legislative session.

Tobin penned editorials and made direct contact with several legislators. The Reverend Bernard Healey, the church's chief lobbyist, was relentless. And NOM-RI launched a $100,000 television campaign and delivered an early barrage of phone calls and postcards that proved difficult to overcome.

"We let NOM get the jump on us in a way that's tragic, because we know public opinion is on our side," says Segal, the former state representative, who has advised MERI on its lobbying effort.

Indeed, a February survey from Public Policy Polling had 50 percent of Rhode Islanders favoring gay marriage and 41 percent opposed.


WHAT NEXT?

Given those numbers, the death of the same-sex nuptials bill has to qualify as an impressive victory for the church and NOM-RI. But it is hardly a total victory.

Indeed, the opposition might have fared better if the measure had won passage in the House and then died, in the waning days of the session, in the Senate. Instead, advocates seem likely to emerge with a partial victory: civil unions.

It is, for many, an ugly prize: a wholly unacceptable second-class citizenship. But the fact that civil unions have become the fallback — the compromise position — is a little remarkable, says Donald Haider-Markel, a Kansas University political scientist who studies gay and lesbian politics.

"Ten years ago, you would've thought that was crazy," he says.

And civil unions are widely viewed as a springboard to same-sex marriage; indeed, no state legislature has ever skipped over civil unions and gone directly to gay nuptials.

The question, then, is this: what is the path to same-sex marriage and how quickly can it get done? Insiders say there is virtually no chance the legislature would act on the measure in 2012; it will be an election year, after all, and the issue will be too hot to touch.

And that will make the election, itself, the next major inflection point. Advocates say they hope to take a page from organized labor, which targeted a few key legislative races last fall and won.

But there are plenty of questions surrounding the nascent effort. Will Sullivan, who took a leave from Congressman James Langevin's office to run the MERI effort, stay on? And is MERI, along with the constellation of regional and national advocates surrounding the organization, well-positioned to win?

The group is building a stronger political operation. But Fischer, the former spokesman, says Rhode Island may be in need of a more permanent, wide-ranging gay rights organization like MassEquality, which has become a political fixture in the Bay State.

There is also the matter of campaign cash. There will be some local money, no doubt. But advocates also hope to win substantial support from a national gay lobby that is increasingly focused on state-level races as the path to same-sex marriage laws and other priorities.

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