February 8, 2013
By Jacob Combs
When the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted late last month to pass a marriage equality bill–the first time in 16 years that such a measure had even made it out of committee–the final vote came in at a lop-sided 51-14. That number might not come as a surprise in deep-blue Rhode Island, where Republicans hold only six votes in the 70-seat House, but on that evening, as the votes came in, there was a green light–meaning a yes vote–next to one unexpected name on the monitor: House Minority Leader Brian Newberry.
“I never campaigned on it,” Newberry told EqualityOnTrial in an interview this week. “Let’s put it this way–nobody ever really asked my opinion. If someone had asked me, I would have told them I was going to vote for it. But I think it’s the right thing to do.” Newberry said that his vote was a personal one and not influenced by his leadership position.
“Leader Newberry made a commitment to support this for all the right reasons,” Ray Sullivan, the campaign director for Rhode Islanders United for Marriage and Marriage Equality Rhode Island told EqualityOnTrial.com in an interview. “He kept his word. Not only did he stand on the right side of history, he spoke in favor of the bill on the floor. He actively encouraged the Senate to move forward and take action. He’s a real leader.”
Sullivan noted that the bill already has some Republican support in the Senate, saying, “It’s another example of how this issue is bipartisan. We have Republican and Democratic sponsors in the Senate, and we think we can grow that. The significance of the Republican caucus here shouldn’t be overlooked.”
The bill’s future is now in the hands of Rhode Island Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, a Democrat and an opponent of marriage equality, who has wide discretion in terms of bringing up bills for a floor vote. Paiva Weed has said a vote will occur in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has made no such statement regarding a vote by the full chamber. Regarding the timing of a committee vote, Paiva Weed said in a late January interview that the bill will be considered “in the next few months.”
Senator Michael McCaffrey, a marriage equality opponent who chairs the judiciary committee, told WPRI that, in his opinion, the Senate is “better off…focus[ing] on business and jobs” instead of the marriage issue. Of the ten Senators on the committee, four are expected to support the bill and four are expected to oppose it. The other two, Sens. Paul Jabour and William Conley, have made conflicting statements on the issue in the past. EqualityOnTrial.com reached out to both senators offices regarding their positions on the bill, but had not heard back by the this article was posted.
Because Senate President Paiva Weed, as well as the Senate majority and minority leaders, hold ex officio positions on all Senate committees, they could vote on sending the marriage equality bill to the Senate floor should they choose to take part in the decision.
“I believe if it comes to the Senate floor, it’ll pass,” Newberry told EqualityOnTrial. “I think the votes are there, so I hope they just pass it. We’re the only New England state that doesn’t have it. There’s obviously support from the public for it. Let’s do it and get on.”
When asked about Rhode Island’s unique system of quasi-marriage equality–in which the state recognizes same-sex couples’ marriages obtained in other jurisdictions, such as neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, but refuses to allow them to marry within its borders–and whether that serves as an economic disadvantage for the state, as Governor Lincoln Chafee has argued, Newberry’s answer was simple.
“Let’s put it this way. It’s not an advantage.”