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Gay Marriage and the 2012 Election

Last week, I wrote a cover story for the Phoenix on the Smith Hill battle over same-sex marriage.

Partisans on both sides are focused, at the moment, on the lobbying effort in the General Assembly. But hanging over that effort is the prospect of electioneering, by advocates and opponents alike, in the 2012 races.

Some of the senators I spoke with voiced doubt that a single issue could make or break their re-election efforts. And they may be right. But the national gay rights lobby and its chief opposition, the National Organization for Marriage, have proven willing to pour significant sums into local legislative races around the country; and in the case of the gay rights lobby, at least, operatives have steered clear of single-issue campaigns. In fact, they tend not to mention same-sex marriage at all.

While advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage here insist that they have not yet targeted elected officials for the 2012 elections, the prospect of intervention will nonetheless hover over their lobbying efforts. Indeed, there are already whispers about potentially vulnerable pols. And it's not all that hard to imagine who might make sense to target - in primaries or general elections.

So, with the bill likely to be decided in the state Senate, here are a few key legislators whose re-election prospects could figure into lobbying efforts. All serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which could play a key role in determining the fate of the legislation:

  • Senator Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat, is under significant pressure on this issue. Hailing from a left-leaning district, she serves as whip under Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who is opposed to same-sex marriage.
  • Senator Paul Jabour, a Providence Democrat, has declared support for civil unions over gay nuptials. His district voted for the socially liberal Lincoln Chafee for governor, though the more conservative Frank Caprio made a decent showing.
  • Senator Dawson Tucker Hodgson, a freshman Republican who represents North Kingstown, East Greenwich and a piece of Warwick, won by about 8 points last fall. As a newcomer, he could face a headwind in a presidential election year, with Barack Obama driving Democrats to the polls.
  • Senator Bill Walaska, a Warwick Democrat, told the Phoenix he backs civil unions but left the door slightly ajar to a switch in position. In office for 16 years, he could be difficult for either side to dislodge.

Of course, the Senate leadership has a strong hand in fate of the bill. But while Paiva Weed and Senate Majority Leader Dominick J. Ruggerio, also opposed to gay nuptials, may have to think about the fate of their caucus, they are not considered personally vulnerable.

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