September 12, 2012
By Jacob Combs
Marriage equality in Rhode Island is a matter of when and not if, but last night’s primaries for the state legislature probably mean that when might not be as soon as many hope for. Rhode Island is the only New England state that has not allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry (Maine did, but later rescinded those rights and will consider restoring them this November), and public opinion polls show strong support for marriage equality in the state. The roadblock to equality, though, is the state legislature, and last night’s primaries only showed some progress, but likely not enough, to removing that impediment.
Rhode Island’s Speaker of the House, Gordon Fox, is openly gay and a marriage equality supporter, and he has publicly stated that he plans on introducing a marriage bill in the next legislative session. There is support for marriage equality among a good number of House members in Rhode Island, but the state Senate is much less supportive, especially Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, who has refused to allow legislation come up for a vote. (It’s worth noting that marriage equality in the state is not really a matter of Democrats vs. Republicans–Rhode Island is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the divide about equal marriage exists within the party. For example, both Paiva-Weed and Fox are Democrats.)
In last night’s elections, marriage equality supporters gained ground in the House primaries, but flipped only one seat in the Senate primaries, that of Michael Pinga, a two-term Senator who lost to pro-marriage equality challenger Adam Satchell. The most significant Senate primary race took place between Senate Judiciary chairman Michael McCaffrey and openly gay challenger Laura Pisaturo–the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over any marriage equality bills, and Governor Lincoln Chaffee said that the race was “pivotal” and the election of Pisaturo would send a “broad, broad message across the state.” Unfortunately, McCaffrey, who opposes marriage equality, won by a 53-47 percent margin.
McCaffrey is viewed widely as a possible successor to Paiva-Weed, although a Pisaturo win could have been somewhat pyrrhic: Paiva-Weed could still have promoted anti-marriage equality Judiciary vice chairman Paul Jabour to McCaffrey’s position. In other good news for equal marriage rights in Rhode Island, Ryan Pearson, a marriage equality supporter, survived a primary and is seen as a contender in the upcoming general election against anti-equality Republican Senator Bethany Moura.
Last night’s elections in Rhode Island demonstrate just how important primary elections are. Of course, the success of marriage equality in the state legilature next year will depend in part on the results of the general election in November. But primary elections lay the groundwork for general election victories, and then legislative victories. In Rhode Island, for now, the inevitable day when marriage equality is a reality may still be some ways away.