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Gay-marriage vote sparks fight in state races

Many people see the issue as central

Eight months had passed since West Roxbury state Senator Marian Walsh cast a vote in support of gay marriage, but judging by the crowd at a debate in Norwood this month, the wounds she caused in her heavily Roman Catholic district are as fresh as ever.

Before Walsh had uttered one word of her opening remarks, backers of her opponent, Robert W. Joyce of Roslindale, began booing. Walsh supporters soon shouted them down. By the time the debate was over, a police officer had yanked a Walsh supporter out of the hall for heckling her rival.

"This is one of those issues that truly touches voters," Joyce explained later. "Senator Walsh no longer represents my views, the views of her constituents, or the views of this Commonwealth because she failed to listen to the people."

Gay marriage is a central issue in about a half dozen races around Massachusetts, reprising the highly charged debates over morality and civil rights that echoed in the halls of the State House during the Constitutional Convention last spring. Both sides are hoping for an edge before the Legislature reconsiders a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and allow civil unions. The measure would have to be approved in the next session in order to place it before voters in November 2006.

Several of the races touched by the same-sex marriage debate are in metropolitan Boston, including the fight for Walsh's seat and the replay of a Democratic primary fight over a Somerville House seat lost by an incumbent who voted to ban gay marriage. Even state Senate President Robert E. Travaglini of East Boston, a supporter of civil unions for gays, faces a long-shot challenge from a candidate who opposes gay marriage and civil unions.

Activists on both sides of the debate have entered the fray as well. Gay marriage supporters, such as Mass Equality and the Human Rights Campaign, based in Washington, D.C., are mobilizing hundreds of supporters; the Human Rights Campaign has spent about $650,000 in Massachusetts over the last year. Gay-marriage opponents, such as the Archdiocese of Boston and its allies, have used the gay-marriage debate to pump up voter registration.

"The same-sex marriage debate is not over," said an editorial in the latest edition of the Pilot, the official newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese. "A more pro-same-sex marriage Legislature could impede the constitutional amendment that would define marriage in this state as the union of one man and one woman."

Many lawmakers on both sides of the issue feared they would face a tough foe like Walsh when they voted in Constitutional Convention earlier this year. Such fears were overstated, though no one will know the fallout until election day. Four years ago in Vermont, 17 legislators who supported civil unions for gay couples lost their seats in fall elections.

In most of the Massachusetts races, the opponent's candidacy began when the lawmakers cast their fateful votes in the Legislature's Constitutional Convention.

Vincent P. Ciampa, a longtime Somerville representative, was defeated in the September Democratic primary by a gay constituent named Carl M. Sciortino, Jr., who was outraged that Ciampa had voted to deny him marriage rights. While Sciortino barely mentioned his stance on gay marriage during the primary campaign, much of campaign donations and many of his volunteers were there because he opposed any amendment banning same-gender matrimony.

But Ciampa is still fighting as a write-in candidate, and he is now getting plenty of support from outraged opponents of gay marriage. One such group is the Article 8 Alliance, which formed in a bid to oust the four Supreme Judicial Court justices who ruled Nov. 18 in favor of legalizing gay marriage.

Article 8 is now circulating mailers and e-mails depicting Sciortino and another man disrupting a Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. The e-mail shows images of Sciortino with his back turned to the pulpit.

Brian Camenker, head of Article 8 Alliance, said his group got involved after it became clear that Governor Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, while opposed to same-sex marriage, refused to make it a campaign issue in fear of alienating voters. Camenker said he wants to offset well-coordinated progay marriage groups such as MassEquality. "From our standpoint, the priority is not to let them [gay-rights groups] knock off reps who voted for traditional marriage," Camenker said. Representatives "are waking up and seeing that everyone they thought was their friend is hiding behind trees, and we're the only ones out there now."

Marty Rouse, campaign director at MassEquality, said his group's goal is to make sure that incumbents who stuck their necks out by supporting gay marriage don't lose their seats.

One of those incumbent is state Representative Kathleen M. Teahan of Whitman, who was out on a Sunday walk not long after the Constitutional Convention when she was stopped on the street by former state lawmaker Edward "Ned" Kirby, a 76-year old Republican who was the Senate's staunchest opponent of gay rights in the 1980s.

"He stopped me on his way home from church to tell me he was running against me because he couldn't stand by and watch me support gay rights," Teahan said.

Now, the gay-marriage issue dominates the race. On Thursday night, Teahan went into a debate broadcast on a local radio station hoping to discuss problems with drinking-water quality in parts of the district, and complaints about the re-opening of a dump. Instead, the entire debate centered on gay marriage.

Mary Alice Kirby, the candidate's wife and campaign manager, said her husband intensely opposes gay marriage, but his main complaint is that Teahan's vote against a proposed constitutional amendment denied voters the chance to decide the issue for themselves at the ballot box. "Ned ended up in it because everyone started calling Kathleen Teahan by the ton, and getting really angry because she was so adamant," she said. "What people wanted was a chance to vote on it. His feeling is that if you allow people to vote on something like this, they will accept it more if it comes through the democratic process."

Not far from Teahan's district, Democratic state Representative Philip Travis of Rehoboth -- the prime sponsor of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage but not allow civil unions, either -- is fighting off a spirited challenge from Republican Steven S. Howitt, a gay-marriage supporter with the backing of several gay rights groups.

Even Travaglini, who co-authored the amendment that passed that would ban gay marriage and allow civil unions, faces opposition from a religious former doctor named Gilbert R. Lavoie who opposes civil unions as strongly as gay marriage.

Joyce, Walsh's opponent, said that he has attracted hundreds of supporters disgusted with Walsh's voting record on gay-rights issues. Walsh concedes that many lawns with Joyce signs once had signs with her name on them. "This is the hottest race on this issue in the state," Walsh said. "I know for a fact that a lot of his supporters are my former supporters."

Raphael Lewis can be reached at 

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