PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Phone banks, an army of volunteers and alliances with organized labor, business leaders and religious clergy propelled gay marriage to victory in Rhode Island this week, a savvy and coordinated strategy that relied on growing public support and old-fashioned bare-knuckle politics.
Gay marriage legislation had failed every year in Rhode Island since 1997, leaving the heavily Catholic state the lone holdout in New England as the five other states changed their marriage laws. That’s soon set to change. The state Senate voted Wednesday to allow gay marriage, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee plans to sign the bill into law following a final, procedural vote in the House next week.
This was a victory won by many people because that’s what it takes, House Speaker Gordon Fox, a Providence Democrat who is gay and led House efforts to pass gay marriage, said Thursday. You bring everyone together, and you’re stronger for it. It’s a recipe that could definitely be replicated in other states.
Opponents, however, say their defeat in Rhode Island was less about dogged political strategy than it was the national conversation on gay marriage.
It’s a campaign that’s been promoted by Hollywood, by the news media, by educational institutions, said Scott Spear, a spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage’s Rhode Island chapter. I think the local group was just on that wave. They didn’t create it, they just rode it.
Rhode Island will be the 10th state to allow gay marriage when the legislation takes effect Aug. 1. Supporters in Delaware and Illinois are also hoping to follow this year. Efforts are also underway in other states, including New Jersey, Oregon and Minnesota.
The strategy that proved successful in Rhode Island began two years ago after the previous significant effort to pass gay marriage fell apart. It was a bitter defeat, and advocates vowed to focus on electing candidates who supported gay marriage in the 2012 elections.
Marriage advocates formed ties with the AFL-CIO, environmental activists and other progressive groups. By teaming up, the coalition was able to pool their support for candidates with wider voter appeal – and who also happened to support gay marriage.
In November, several new gay marriage supporters were elected to the House and, more significantly, the state Senate.
Meanwhile, Rhode Islanders United for Marriage rallied support from labor leaders, religious leaders and top officials. Each week, the group rolled out new endorsements from business leaders and local mayors.
Hundreds of volunteers manned phone banks and wrote emails and letters to put pressure on undecided lawmakers in the Senate. Some lawmakers reported receiving hundreds of emails and calls.