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Was Laura Pisaturo’s loss to Michael McCaffrey actually a win for same-sex marriage supporters?

September 25, 2012

The conventional wisdom holds that the September 11 primary was, at best, a status quo election for supporters of same-sex marriage. Legislative candidates who back the issue fared far better in the House, after all, than the real battlefield of the Senate. And Senate Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey fended off a challenge by Laura Pisaturo, a gay woman, in one of the primary’s most high-profile legislative races.

Yet a closer reading of the election reveals a more nuanced outlook — one in which same-sex marriage could have a better shot of passing the Senate in 2013 than widely recognized.

The outlook remains murky, to be sure, even for close observers of that chamber. But consider the following:

– Although McCaffrey beat Pisaturo with 53.3 percent of the vote, the margin dividing them (226 votes) was relatively close for an incumbent with a big war chest who hadn’t faced a challenger in some time.

So does McCaffrey, a potential successor to Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, want to face another such challenge? (He didn’t return a call seeking comment.) Pisaturo says she didn’t present herself as a single-issue candidate, yet part of the reason for backing her would fade away if the Senate backed same-sex marriage.

– Same-sex marriage has a higher profile than in the past, leading to questions for candidates on the stump. Senate Finance chairman Daniel DaPonte, for example, said during a debate on WPRI/WNAC-TV’s Newsmakers that he supports same-sex marriage with exemptions.

During a different debate on the same program, McCaffrey indicated a willingness to call a vote on the issue, according to Ray Sullivan, campaign director for Fight Back RI. Sullivan adds:

“Because we were a viable political force, candidates for the General Assembly in 2012 couldn’t hide from this important civil rights issue. They had to speak to it. They had to go on record. That’s a change from cycles past.”

– Adam Satchell, a same-sex marriage supporter, beat an opponent of the issue, Senator Michael Pinga of West Warwick in the primary. It’s possible the November 6 election could yield other changes.

For her part, Pisaturo declines to make any predictions about the fate in the Senate of same-sex marriage legislation. She says it’s too early to know whether she’ll run again in 2014. (Pisaturo says, too, that jobs and the economy, and changing the culture of the Statehouse, were bigger issues in her campaign than same-sex marriage.)

Meanwhile, Paiva Weed remains personally opposed to same-sex marriage, and won’t comment further before the November election, according to her spokesman, Greg Pare.

It’s not hard to imagine the Senate upholding its line in the sand against same-sex marriage, encouraged by Bishop Tobin and the National Organization for Marriage, among others.

Still, some same-sex marriage supporters, like openly gay state Representative Frank Ferri of Warwick, point to Pisaturo’s race as an important signal of where the issue is headed.

Ferri notes how Pisaturo ran strong in a largely middle class district. He adds:

“I think 2013 could very possibly be the year with the momenum that’s been going. Don’t forget — I’ve been involved in this [movement] for like 17 years and I’ve seen the progress that has been made and I believe we’re just about there.”

The election year of 2014 looms on the horizon — a time when the General Assembly can be expected to shy from controversy. So if 2013 proves to be the year for same-sex marriage supporters in Rhode Island, Pisaturo’s losing 2012 campaign will take on a whole new context.

This post has been updated.

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