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Marriage debate is a test of Patrick's power

FOR BETTER or worse, Deval Patrick owns a big piece of the fight over gay marriage in Massachusetts.

The new governor's clout is on the line.

At stake is a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. To earn a spot on the ballot in November 2008, the proposed amendment must be approved by 50 lawmakers in two consecutive sessions of a Constitutional Convention.

In January, the amendment won its first round of approval. Legislators are scheduled to gather today for a second round of voting.

Through retirements and conversions, the margin in favor of the amendment is reported to have narrowed. Did it narrow enough to defeat the amendment?

Marshaling votes is an obvious test for House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, a supporter of gay rights, and also for the new Senate president, Therese Murray.

But it could be an even bigger test for Patrick, who embraced the same-sex marriage cause with zeal and rhetorical passion.

Meanwhile, political subplots abound. Does DiMasi want Patrick to be able to claim victory? And what about the governor's method of persuasion? There is speculation, but no proof, that his administration held out the promise of jobs for legislators who voted Patrick's way. The roll call will be watched closely for flips in sentiment and then for any future career flips.

To his credit, Patrick embraced same-sex marriage as a matter of basic civil rights. It remains to be seen how much his embrace changes the political dynamic on Beacon Hill.

In January, when he was still governor-elect and legislators were gathering for the first round of voting, he launched a last-minute effort to derail the measure. It was too little, too late. However, he stuck with it and recently became the first sitting governor in Massachusetts history to march in a gay pride parade.

It's good politics for Patrick. The gay community supported his candidacy and he needs continued support from his base, especially after a politically rocky start. But rhetoric and symbolism only go so far. Now Patrick needs something tangible in return for his efforts: enough votes to block the amendment. Postponement of a vote will be viewed as weakness and a setback for those who support same-sex marriage.

Patrick and other same-sex marriage backers are running up against a strong argument from those who support the ban on same-sex marriage -- that the people have the right to vote on this controversial issue. The amendment is before legislators, after all, because petitioners gathered enough signatures to put it there.

In November, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial court put more pressure on legislators. The same court that granted a constitutional right of marriage to same-sex couples scolded lawmakers for recessing rather than voting on the merits of putting the proposed amendment before the people.

The Catholic Church is also lobbying in favor of the proposed ban. This week, the four bishops of Massachusetts, including Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, sent letters to legislators, urging them to vote to put the measure on the ballot.

But, same-sex marriage proponents are fighting back with a powerful message of their own -- that you don't put civil rights up for a vote.

When it comes to arguing that point, Patrick is an eloquent spokesman. However, pretty words can win elections. On their own, they don't sway Beacon Hill pols. Some are legitimately torn between fulfilling their constitutional obligation to petitioners and upholding the constitutional rights of same-sex couples.

Patrick is new to Beacon Hill and his political inexperience showed during the first tempestuous weeks of his administration. Matters settled down after the governor brought in Doug Rubin, a senior campaign adviser, as his chief of staff. Even so, controversial personnel changes that should have taken place at the start of his administration dominated much of the news in recent weeks.

Patrick also offered a series of interesting but costly proposals to enhance public education and fund biotechnology. Right now, there's no clear way to fund them. His budget proposals have been under attack since he submitted them. Patrick and DiMasi clashed most recently over the issue of closing corporate tax loopholes, a move Patrick supports.

If he can't win the gay marriage battle, what battle can Patrick win?

This a test, not only for proponents of same-sex marriage. It's also a test of Patrick's power.

What will it be? Together we can or together we can't?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

Latest coverage of the debate:
 GLOBE EDITORIAL: Expanding the circle of rights
 JEFF JACOBY | WEB EXCLUSIVE: A political grenade
 DERRICK Z. JACKSON | WEB EXCLUSIVE: Ring the wedding bells
Coverage from today's Globe:
 Right of gays to marry set for years to come (By Frank Phillips and Andrea Estes, Globe Staff)
 Personal stories changed minds (By Lisa Wangsness and Andrea Estes, Globe Staff)
 Fear and then, 'I can't believe it' (By Yvonne Abraham, Globe Staff)
 GLOBE EDITORIAL: A good day for marriage
 SCOT LEHIGH: A victory for equality
Past coverage of the debate:
 Same-sex marriage ban advances (Boston Globe, 1/3/07)
 Vote to test DiMasi's clout (Boston Globe, 6/11/07)
 Legislative support slim for ban (Boston Globe, 5/17/07)
 Legislature delays vote on amendment (Boston Globe, 7/13/06)
 Gay-marriage opponents get SJC go-ahead (Boston Globe, 7/11/06)