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Tight vote looms on same-sex marriage

Lobbying intense on both sides

With the Constitutional Convention just hours away, a proposal to allow voters to decide the future of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was hanging by a thread in the Legislature last night.

By all accounts, House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, Senate President Therese Murray, and Governor Deval Patrick, all strong supporters of gay marriage, were within one or two votes of blocking the proposal from reaching the 2008 ballot.

The three have spent the last few days prodding, cajoling, and lobbying wavering lawmakers who previously supported the measure. The razor-thin margin will heighten the drama of what is expected to be an emotional and tense showdown at today's session, scheduled to begin at 1 p.m.

At stake is the fate of same-sex marriage in the only state where it is legal. The voter-initiated constitutional amendment, which would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, must win the support of at least 50 of the state's 200 lawmakers in two consecutive legislative sessions to win a place on the 2008 ballot. The measure won its first round of approval, with 62 votes, in January, at the tail end of the last legislative session. Through turnover and resignations, support dwindled to just 57 votes by this spring, even before the intense lobbying began.

A defeat for the amendment would deliver a major blow to social conservatives seeking to overturn the Supreme Judicial Court's 2003 ruling legalizing same-sex unions. A victory for the ban is unlikely today, with political leaders saying they will delay a vote until later this session if they do not believe they have the votes to defeat the amendment. The measure will die if no vote is taken by the end of the 2007-2008 legislative session.

Most legislators who have been targeted by legislative leaders and advocacy groups were unwilling yesterday to talk on the record. But there was increasing optimism last night among supporters of same-sex marriage that a vote will take place.

"I believe there is a very good chance that there will be a vote tomorrow," said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a veteran of legislative battles over gay rights. "The leadership . . . is working very, very hard on lining up votes. There is still work to be done. But they are enjoying some success, and we will not know for sure -- in fact no one will know -- until tomorrow morning if we have the votes or not."

Amendment supporters may have lost one of their legislative supporters, Representative Anthony J. Verga, a Democrat from Gloucester, who slipped and fell in a State House hallway yesterday. He was carried by stretcher to an ambulance and taken to Massachusetts General Hospital. His chief of staff said last night that the 72-year-old Verga was conscious but it was not clear whether he would be able to attend today's Constitutional Convention.

Same-sex marriage opponents appeared outmatched at the State House yesterday, with just one lobbyist working to counter the blitz by Democratic leaders. Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, the group that led the petition drive to get the proposed amendment before the convention, was out of town attending his son's graduation this week and is not expected to return until today.

But Evelyn Reilly, the Family Institute's director of public policy, said her group remains "cautiously optimistic" that the proposed amendment will survive if a vote is taken today.

Much of the focus on Beacon Hill was on DiMasi, a strong advocate of gay marriage, who is under the gun to round up the last few votes against the amendment, including members of his own leadership team, many of whom have cast an initial vote in favor of placing the amendment before voters.

Advocates, legislators, and others involved in the lobbying effort say that many of the dozen or more lawmakers who have been targeted by the Democratic leadership complain that DiMasi has not been able to assure them that his close ally, Speaker Pro Tem Thomas M. Petrolati, a Democrat from Ludlow, will switch his vote. That, they say, is undercutting the speaker's arguments that others should change their positions.

DiMasi huddled in his office for a half-hour with Petrolati yesterday, but neither would talk to the media afterward. Some lobbyists say that several of Petrolati's close House colleagues from Western Massachusetts would follow his lead if he decided to switch his vote. DiMasi also met with others in his leadership team who have voted for the amendment.

Petrolati owes a good deal to DiMasi, who elevated Petrolati to a top leadership position, creating the title of speaker pro tem, a post that carries extra pay but no clear duties. DiMasi has also allowed Petrolati to wield considerable influence in the Springfield area, most particularly in the Hampden County court system.

Gay marriage advocates also point to other high-ranking leaders, including three of DiMasi's four division floor leaders and the chairmen of several major committees, who DiMasi has failed to persuade to oppose the amendment. One of them, state Representative Paul J. Donato, a Medford Democrat and an opponent of gay marriage, who had previously indicated that he was open to listening to the other side, said yesterday that he intended to stick to his position and vote for the ban.

DiMasi's press aide, David Guarino, said the speaker has aggressively pressed his case with those on his leadership team who are on record opposing gay marriage.

"The speaker is lobbying everyone, including members of his leadership, asking them to examine their consciences and vote on the merits," Guarino said.

Some unexpected movement could come in the Senate, where an overwhelming majority, 32 of 40 members, voted last year to block the amendment from the ballot. Two more senators, Democrat Michael Morrissey of Quincy and Republican Robert Hedlund of Weymouth, are now saying they are reconsidering and may oppose sending the amendment to the voters.

"I want another night to sleep on it," Hedlund told reporters as he emerged from a meeting with Patrick.

He said he is torn between believing that voters have a right to decide such a major issue and his libertarian view that same-sex couples should be allowed the right to marry.

Reilly, of the Massachusetts Family Institute, acknowledged that her group is up against a formidable array of Beacon Hill power brokers seeking to kill the proposal, but said that the optimism of gay marriage advocates may be unfounded.

"Rumors are spreading all over the place. I don't think anybody knows for sure, but we are feeling confident," Reilly said when asked if the votes opposing same-sex marriage were holding in face of the pressure. "Remember, Goliath was slain."

Some of the state's major political figures have joined with Patrick, DiMasi, and Murray. US Senator Edward M. Kennedy has placed calls to Democratic legislators.

Former governor William F. Weld, a Republican who was an early advocate of gay rights, also reached out to at least one GOP lawmaker, placing a call to Hedlund.

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)