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Reilly's dismissal of gays

TOM REILLY did a lot of things last week when he certified a citizen's initiative petition that would dismantle the Goodridge decision and ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. He unleashed what will be a hideously ugly and multi-million-dollar campaign over the next three years until it reaches the 2008 ballot. He made gay families less valued than every other family in Massachusetts. And, as someone who worked tirelessly on his 1998 campaign, he also broke my heart.

The Tom Reilly I knew in 1998 when he challenged the establishment and ran for attorney general wanted to be a change agent. He had a vision of fair play, and gay people were included. He sought out the gay vote, formed a gay advisory committee, met with leaders and organizations. He talked about his belief in equality and his determination to champion civil rights.

Over the years as attorney general, Reilly has, at best, taken the safest and least controversial route when it involves this minority group. Yes, his civil rights division has pursued several hate crimes and he supported efforts to secure full compensation to the surviving partners of those who perished on 9/11. He also spoke in favor of civil unions when it became law in Vermont in 2000, and he sent written testimony in support of domestic partnership bills. But it pretty much stops there.

Reilly and his office seem perplexed at the intense negative reaction they receive from the gay community, but they have forgotten about their predecessors. We had come to rely on the leadership of that office to stand by the simple principle of equality under law when our backs were to the wall. Now, it's crystal clear, we're on our own.

Former attorneys general Frank Bellotti and Jim Shannon condemned the state's view that gay and lesbian couples were unsuitable foster parents. They refused to defend the state, and the long litigation eventually led to the Commonwealth entirely retreating from that position.

Shannon, in 1989, purposely rejected a ballot initiative that would have dismantled the newly enacted civil rights law that prevented discrimination based on sexual orientation. He knew he would be sued, but he knew it was the right thing to do. Shannon's ruling was upheld in a Supreme Judicial Court decision that, ironically, Reilly leaned on when he rejected a measure limiting stem cell research.

And Scott Harshbarger, who got off to a bumpy start with the community, worked hard to turn that around through his actions, some of which were criticized. As a result, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender supporters were a critical component of his race for governor.

The truth is, as a minority community, we look to the attorney general for leadership on matters of fairness and equality. None of Reilly's predecessors hid behind the old chestnut of ''I'm only here to defend the law." I surely can't remember any of them flapping the state Constitution around the air at a press conference that expressly excluded community leaders.

All of Reilly's immediate predecessors submitted legislation on a host of issues, including some that mattered to the gay community. All of them made independent, principled decisions on matters of great significance. And none of them interpreted the state Constitution, which was created to grant equality, to bolster an effort to deny equality to a single group of Massachusetts citizens.

Instead, this attorney general has consistently hid behind existing order, even when it is blatantly discriminatory. Reilly is vigorously defending a 1913 law which was created to perpetuate discrimination and was ignored for decades until same-sex couples from out-of-state came to marry here. I think he's forgotten that civil rights advances occur when people, including attorneys general, challenge bad laws rather than stand behind them.

Reilly said last week that even though he's personally opposed to the ballot measure, the state Constitution required him to certify it. But when pressed by reporters whether that meant he would personally work to defeat it in the Legislature or use the bully pulpit of the governor's office to fight it, he said that was a question for another day.

I can tell you what gay families heard. They heard the attorney general waffling yet again on a very basic question of fairness and equality. And the waffle came after the kick in the stomach.

It's looking like this Democratic front-runner for governor will win or lose without the gay community. I'm beginning to believe that Reilly believes he doesn't need our support. Maybe he doesn't. But it's certainly heartbreaking to have supported someone for attorney general only to watch him repeatedly find us so thoroughly disposable.

Mary Breslauer is the principal of Communication Solutions and served as a senior adviser to Reilly's campaign for attorney general in 1998.

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