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Prospects shift as DiMasi takes over for Finneran

Foes of gay marriage see blow to amendment hopes

The effort to bring a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to voters in November 2006 suffered a major setback yesterday with departure of House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran and the elevation of Salvatore F. DiMasi, whose arrival is expected to shift the Massachusetts legislative agenda to the left on social issues such as gay rights, abortion, and stem cell research.

A key legislative backer of the proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage and establish civil unions yesterday all but declared defeat, saying that Finneran's exit from Beacon Hill was the final straw in an effort that already was in trouble because the state has legalized same-sex marriage with little of the uproar predicted by opponents.

"It is pretty much over," said Senate minority leader Brian P. Lees, a Springfield Republican who cosponsored the amendment with Finneran and Senate President Robert E. Travaglini. The House and Senate, sitting in a constitutional convention, must vote a second time in the next session before it could go to the voters on the 2006 ballot.

"In fact, there will be a question as to whether the issue will come up at all," Lees said. He said the issue has faded to the "back burners of Massachusetts politics," because few problems have surfaced with the implementation of the Supreme Judicial Court's decision to legalize gay marriage.

"With the fact the law has been in effect for a number of months and with the change in the House leadership, it would appear any change in the constitution to ban marriage is quickly fading," Lees said.

DiMasi supports same-sex marriage, and Finneran does not. In this year's constitutional convention, DiMasi opposed all versions of the proposed constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and, in some cases, establish civil unions. He was among the few lawmakers who saw any amendment as a dilution of the SJC decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

Finneran helped engineer the amendments' approval by a slim, 105-92 margin last March, just four votes more than the 101 needed to pass. Just as DiMasi could when he becomes speaker, Finneran used the influence of the 160-member House and his knowledge of legislative rules to steer the debate. Travaglini presides over the convention.

To liberal activists, Finneran's retirement marks a seismic shift on Beacon Hill. Along with his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage, he helped hold the line on new taxes in the last year, blocked an endorsement of stem cell research, and forced lawmakers to sock away millions of dollars in reserve accounts rather than spend the money on more social services.

Human services advocates who had been warring with Finneran for almost 14 years, including during his time as Ways and Means chairman, are convinced that DiMasi will harken back to an era when their concerns were heard.

"I have spent the last 14 years of my life trying to get around Tommy Finneran blocking various initiatives," said Judy Meredith, executive director of the Public Policy Institute and a human services lobbyists for more than 20 years. "Now we have a guy who is not a knee-jerk opponent of anything that benefits people in need."

Since news of DiMasi consolidating his hold on the speaker's office emerged, lobbyists, public interest advocates, and legislators have spent the last several days trying to forecast a DiMasi speakership. No clear blueprint of his agenda has emerged, and the North End Democrat was not talking publicly, telling reporters that he will not hold any media interviews until his election tomorrow.

His 25-year legislative record is decidedly liberal, positions that most feel are held out of his own convictions, but driven as much by the political pressures from the liberal district he represents.

Early in his career, DiMasi did not appear as liberal. "His district changed, and so did he," said one former lawmaker who knows him well. "The North End of 1980 is not the same place. It is much more transient [now] and does not have as many of the traditional Italian families. He's kept pace with his district. That is evidence more of his practicality than his ideology."

Though he hasn't spoken publicly about his agenda, DiMasi has pledged to colleagues that he will empower committee chairmen and the rank and file, allowing committee chairmen and other individual lawmakers a greater say in the agenda of the House than they had under Finneran's autocratic control. He is also vowing to colleagues to bring more diversity into his leadership team.

But it was the issue of gay marriage, which gripped the Legislature in a high-profile debate this spring, that appeared to offer many lawmakers and activists the clearest contrast between the old and new speakers.

Gay activists hope to defeat the proposed constitutional amendment if it comes up in the next session, but it is far from certain it would come up at all. DiMasi and Travaglini could shelve the amendment and not call for a vote at all. Or they could bring it up for a vote, and same-sex marriage supporters such as DiMasi could attempt to persuade lawmakers to vote against it.

Yesterday, same-sex marriage supporters were ecstatic when it became clear that Finneran was leaving to join the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

"Now we don't have an opponent in the speaker's office pushing for the worse scenario in each legislative moment," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

Isaacson said DiMasi's elevation, while a definite boost to her group's cause, does not guarantee success. Equally important will be legislative elections: Several gay-marriage supporters in the House and Senate have retired and may be replaced by opponents. A same-sex marriage opponent -- Representative Vincent P. Ciampa, a Somerville Democrat -- lost to a same-sex marriage supporter in a party primary this month.

In addition, several lawmakers who had voted for the amendment have privately said they too may switch their positions, particularly since the SJC decision has been implemented smoothly and the controversy had faded from the public's concerns.

The leaders of the effort to ban same-sex marriage say they want to work with DiMasi to persuade him that most Massachusetts residents want the Legislature to get the amendment to the ballot.

"We hope the new speaker will carry out his constitutional duties and be responsive to the desires of the good citizens of Masachusetts, the majority of whom stand for traditional marriage," said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute. 

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