Is the Rhode Island Senate warming up to same-sex marriage?

It’s been clear for a long time that a majority of Rhode Island House Democrats (and likely a Republican or two) support legalizing same-sex marriage, and Governor Chafee has always said he’d sign such a bill into law.

That’s kept all eyes on the Rhode Island Senate – particularly Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Newport, a devout Catholic who opposes gay marriage, and the conservative Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, a Catholic who belongs to his city’s Knights of Columbus.

There are signs the Senate’s opposition may be softening. In February, Paiva Weed and McCaffrey met with lobbyists from Marriage Equality Rhode Island at the lawmakers’ request; last year they never got a meeting at all. And at least two Senate Republicans, Dawson Hodgson of North Kingstown and Christopher Ottiano of Portsmouth, say they’d make a vote to approve gay marriage bipartisan.

Ray Sullivan, the former lawmaker who heads MERI, said there’s “no doubt” gay marriage would pass the House, which is led by openly gay Speaker Gordon Fox. “We have more support now in the General Assembly than we’ve ever had before,” Sullivan told WPRI.com. “That’s not spin. That’s the reality. People are recognizing that it’s time to take action on this issue.”

“I will give credit where credit is due in the Senate,” he said. “Last year it was difficult to engage the leadership in a conversation about this. But Senate President Paiva Weed and her leadership team opened the door to us this year and actually asked us for a meeting, which shows progress.” Last year the chamber supported the law allowing gay civil unions, which has met with a tepid reception.

Marriage Equality’s political argument this year is twofold: state lawmakers, particularly Democrats, will either address the issue at the State House by voting on it before they adjourn next month, or activists will force them to address it on the campaign trail this fall during their primary and general campaigns.

Roll-call votes on gay marriage can get surprising results, as New York demonstrated when its Republican-controlled Senate approved it last June after months of lobbying. ”I think the Senate president has been thoughtful in her dealings with us this year, and I think she will be attentive to the feedback she gets from her members,” Sullivan said, choosing his words carefully.

A survey last year by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-affiliated firm in North Carolina, showed 50% of Rhode Island voters support legalizing gay marriage, with support heaviest among Democrats and young people and opposition strongest among Republicans and senior citizens.

Sullivan, a former state lawmaker himself, thinks the declarations of support for gay marriage on Wednesday by President Obama and particularly U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, the patriarch of the Democratic Party in Rhode Island, could give local lawmakers some political cover for doing the same.

That said, neither chamber is close to a floor vote yet. The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the gay marriage bill earlier this spring but hasn’t voted to send it to the full House, while McCaffrey’s Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to schedule a hearing. McCaffrey was not immediately available for comment.

• Related: Tobin criticizes Obama and Reed; won’t back Chafee on Pleau (May 10)

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Rhode Island (change)

 
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the first independent in his position, has his work cut out for him: fix the state's finances and help 66,000 unemployed Rhode Islanders get back to work.
 
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Governor: Lincoln Chafee
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State Treasurer: Gina Raimondo
Secretary of State: Ralph Mollis

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