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From afar, fund boosts supporters of gay marriage

For generations, Massachusetts legislative campaigns have been parochial affairs won with local money, as candidates wore holes in their shoes at backyard barbecues and cocktail parties to snare a handful of $50 checks.

But now that Massachusetts has become the country's battleground over gay marriage, local candidates are getting a boost from national money, thanks to the brave new world of the Internet.

With the click of a mouse and the tap of a few keys, supporters of gay marriage from Maine to Florida and California to the Carolinas are contributing to the campaigns of two-dozen Massachusetts legislative candidates who have pledged to uphold last year's high court ruling legalizing gay marriage.

SupportEquality.org, a new website, is funneling donations to the campaign coffers of hand-picked lawmakers in tight races.

Launched late last month, SupportEquality.org has yet to prove it can be a fund-raising powerhouse. But some candidates and local political observers say it has the potential to make a difference in a handful of competitive races across the state.

It is the brainchild of two Bay State Internet entrepreneurs who see this year's legislative elections as pivotal in the fight over a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which is set to be voted on in the coming legislative session. The measure passed by a slim margin in the first go-around earlier this year, and if it passes next year, it would appear on the ballot in 2006.

"This is the first time anyone has done anything like this," said Thomas Gerace, who, along with Carl Rosendorf, the CEO of Smartbargains.com, created SupportEquality.org. "What we recognized is that the Internet is a phenomenal way to tap both givers from across the country and the thousands of people who can give small donations that can add up to large amounts," he said, adding that he hopes to raise "hundreds of thousands of dollars" through the site.

SupportEquality.org, which mimics the Internet fund-raising juggernaut created by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, has already generated thousands of dollars for local candidates who normally struggle to raise cash, allowing them to reach a constituency far beyond their districts that sees unusual importance in their otherwise mundane races.

"It's consistent, it's all money we would have never had access to otherwise, and we're grateful for whatever support comes in," said Katie Walker, campaign manager for Representative Cory Atkins, a Concord Democrat who has received more than $1,000 in contributions from SupportEquality.org, mostly in increments of $50 or less. "Individuals across the state and nation realize this is a revolution that cannot be fought elsewhere unless it's won here first."

Melissa Murgo, a former legislative assistant to state Representative John P. Fresolo, is now challenging her former boss, a staunch social conservative who opposes both civil unions and gay marriage. The district is made up of the socially conservative, blue-collar neighborhoods of Grafton Hill and Vernon Hill in Worcester. But Murgo, a proponent of same-sex marriage, is helped in running a viable campaign because she has received between $3,000 and $5,000 through SupportEquality.org, and expects to receive as much as $10,000 before the Sept. 14 primary. House races typically cost about $40,000.

Another beneficiary of the website is MassEquality, a Bay State advocacy group providing candidates who advocate gay rights with volunteers, organizing assistance, and more. The group gets about half of all the dollars donated to SupportEquality.org, money that the group will use to pay for get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of the candidates who show up on the website.

Marty Rouse, campaign coordinator for MassEquality, said he has yet to see a tidal wave of cash from SupportEquality.org.

"We have not raised a lot of money from that, but we're hoping to," said Rouse, who declined to specify how much money the group has received from the website, except to say that it is "way less" than $50,000. "It's a wonderful tool for people who want to help but don't know how. But as for a windfall, it has not yet materialized."

Unless SupportEquality.org begins to generate large sums of money, the candidates who stand to lose from the group's support of other candidates said it would remain a smaller factor than good campaign organization, hard work, and a universal message.

"It's an interesting idea and an interesting technology, but whether it will bear fruit for candidates is questionable," said Republican consultant Rob Gray, whose client list includes several candidates facing off against Democrats whose pictures appear on SupportEquality.org. "It may work, but just because it looks good on paper doesn't mean it motivates people."

Meanwhile, gay marriage has not emerged as a dominant issue, as voters in typical Massachusetts districts dwell on rising health care costs, taxes, stagnant job creation, and anemic schools, according to interviews last week with several candidates and pollsters, both Democrat and Republican.

"Maybe one out of 10 people will tell me they have some concerns about gay marriage, and one out of 25 will ask me, do I support gay marriage?" said Robert Finneran, a Republican candidate from Newbury running against Democratic State Representative Harriett L. Stanley of West Newbury, who voted to protect gay marriage. Finneran opposes it. "I think people want someone to reform [antisnob zoning laws], to get money for roads, to cut patronage and waste. They don't want to get into an ugly, bitter, divisive battle on social policy."

Many in the Massachusetts political establishment have expressed surprise that the issue that dominated discourse on Beacon Hill for six months has not become a larger issue in campaigns.

The reasons, candidates and party officials said, is that many candidates are avoiding the issue on the campaign trail, fearful of alienating constituents. The parties, lacking unanimity in the ranks, are also staying quiet. And voters are telling candidates and their pollsters that the issue sits near the bottom of their priority lists. Only about 5 percent of voters surveyed by Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos say gay marriage is the most important issue in this election, and of those who feel that way, roughly half oppose it and half support it.

"There are so many undecideds who feel that education and the economy are the most important issues, we've got to get our clients on the right side of those issues," said Paleologos, who conducts polls for about a dozen state legislative candidates. "That's bread and butter."

But the gay marriage issue still has plenty of potential to return to the forefront of debate, primarily because groups opposing same-sex marriage are also extremely active in this campaign cycle, too, creating candidate report cards, church handouts, and mailings, and making phone calls and recruiting volunteers.

"Candidates, if they're smart, don't talk about black-and-white issues; they talk about gray -- mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet," said Larry Cirignano, executive director of Catholic Citizenship, a lay group working in part to overturn the Supreme Judicial Court's gay marriage ruling. "But people will reopen the debate, and it will be played out. So like it or not, gay marriage will come back to the forefront."

During the constitutional convention earlier this year, several lawmakers expressed fears that the votes they cast on the issue could determine their chances for reelection.

Such worries have been founded in the past. In 2000, after Vermont lawmakers voted by a narrow margin to create civil unions, nearly a dozen legislators who voted to create the unique legal equivalent to marriage were bounced from their seats in a voter backlash.

Observers in Massachusetts said the potential for a similar backlash in Massachusetts appears minimal, given that only a handful of candidates have entered the race based on the gay marriage issue.

Still, State Representative Matthew Patrick of Falmouth, who won his seat by just 17 votes in 2002, said he thought long and hard before agreeing to have his likeness posted on SupportEquality.org.

"We had to think about it; it wasn't automatic," said Patrick, whose opponent, Republican Larry Wheatley, opposes same-sex marriage and is one of few candidates this year who frequently addresses the subject. "They had done polls statewide that showed it was not going to be the deciding factor, so we decided to do it. [But] I'm sure my opponent will download my picture from this website and stick it in his mailings."

Walker, Atkins's campaign manager, said she, too, was skeptical of SupportEquality.org at first.

"We certainly had to think about it because the nature of SupportEquality is they are a bunch of individuals, not an organization that is registered, so they could have been a bunch of kooks," Walker said. "I must've hung up on the poor boy who called three or four times."

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