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Did Activists Thwart R.I. Marriage Equality Bill?

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 18, 2011

Did members of the organization leading efforts to bring nuptials for same-sex couples to Rhode Island actually work with Democratic officials to prevent the passage of a marriage equality bill this year?

A number of sources who asked to remain anonymous have come forward to make these allegations.

Openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) shocked LGBT activists on April 27 when he threw his support behind a civil unions bill, noting there was no chance of passing a marriage equality bill due to a lack of support in the House. State Reps. Peter Petrarca (D-Lincoln) and Patrick O'Neill (D-Pawtucket) said, however, there were enough votes to pass the bill in the House.

"Civil unions are unacceptable because they marginalize gay and lesbian couples in very significant ways," said Martha Holt, chair of Marriage Equality Rhode Island. "The General Assembly will essentially be legalizing a two-class system that subject thousands of Rhode Island same-sex couples to discrimination. We cannot support legislation that establishes a second class of citizens in Rhode Island."

With the support of Gov. Lincoln Chafee and Fox, activists were hopeful that Rhode Island would join neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut in granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Hearings were held on a marriage bill in both chambers in February and March. Congressman James Langevin and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian were among the high-profile political figures who backed the bill. And polls showed the majority of Rhode Islanders supported marriage for gays and lesbians.

Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport) remained opposed to same-sex marriage, although she does support civil unions.

MERI has been leading the fight to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples in the Ocean State for the past 8 years. A marriage equality bill has been in the state Legislature every year since 1997, but these measures never made it out of their respective committees for a vote.

A hearing on the civil unions bill was held on May 11. MERI opposes the measure and is calling on supporters to ask legislators to support an amendment that state Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Cranston) introduced that would grant full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

In the past few weeks, however, MERI has been plagued by the departures of several key staffers and board members. Executive Director Kathy Kushnir announced her resignation on April 25, and spokesperson Bill Fischer followed suit a week later.

Sources suggest the effort to secure a vote on the marriage equality bill was on track, until dramatic changes within MERI began to unfold a few months ago.

The man at the center of the storm is former Democratic state Rep. Ray Sullivan, who was hired as MERI's campaign director in late February. "Jamie", who asked to remain anonymous, told EDGE that former state Rep. David Segal, who ran against former Providence Mayor David Cicilline for Congress last year, and Rhode Island Democratic Party Chair Edwin Pacheco facilitated Sullivan's appointment.

"Jamie" said the MERI Board of Directors was "out of control", noting there were what the source described as secret meetings among board members and other organizations. "Jamie" said Sullivan, Segal and Pacheco were among those who attended these gatherings.

"The votes were there in February to get (the marriage bill) out of committee, but Gordon [Fox] refused to let the committee vote on it," said "Alex", another source who wished to remain anonymous who claims to have direct knowledge of these secret meetings. "MERI posted on their Facebook page to have supporters call Gordon [Fox] and request that he let the committee members vote and then the takeover started. The secret group met on Monday, Feb. 14, and contacted the board on Tuesday, Feb. 15. On Wednesday, Feb. 16, MERI board members met with representatives from the secret group."

Pacheco told EDGE in an e-mail that these allegations were "ridiculous and absurd."

Not long after Sullivan joined MERI; the Gill Foundation, Human Rights Campaign, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Freedom to Marry, MassEquality and other regional and national LGBT organizations expressed a desire to become involved with the marriage equality fight in Rhode Island.

"Abby", who also requested anonymity, told EDGE that MERI staffers were required to hand over voter information to the Democratic Party. "Abby" also said HRC and Freedom to Marry were also granted access to MERI's data.

Before Sullivan joined MERI, he had "spent a weekend trashing MERI on both Facebook and Twitter" a few days after the House Judiciary hearings were held, "Jamie" noted.

Sullivan had criticized MERI for encouraging their supporters to put pressure on Fox to schedule a vote on the marriage bill in the House. Sullivan's comments were deleted and he was de-friended. Sullivan reportedly complained to a MERI staffer and was reinstated as a Facebook friend.

MERI board member Karen Loewy, who is also a GLAD staff attorney, defends the organization's commitment to the marriage equality bill. She described the idea that HRC and the Rhode Island Democratic Party tried to block the measure as "nonsense".

"Both on a local level in terms of members of the progressive community, folks within the Democratic party, every action that I have seen, every public statement, every partnership, every offer of resources, has all been consistently with the goal of moving marriage equality forward," Loewy told EDGE.

Holt further dismissed the allegations as "pure fantasy."

"Throughout this legislative session, the unwavering commitment of MERI has always been the passage of marriage equality legislation, and that commitment is one the boards take very seriously," she told EDGE in an e-mail. "At various points in time, MERI heard feedback from members of the community expressing concerns that our existing efforts were not going to be enough to pass the bill. The boards met and made some decisions about staffing to ramp up our efforts, and added resources both internally and externally. We remain committed to those efforts and while some appear busy trying pursue a personal vendetta, our focus is still trying to win the right to marry for same-sex couples in Rhode Island."

"Abby" said MERI had a solid field operation going. Organizers knew the districts and the legislators who were likely to support the marriage equality bill, but "Abby" suggested Sullivan dismissed this work to pursue his own strategy. She even alleged that HRC threatened to cut funding to MERI unless the board hired Sullivan.

"We didn't need these other organizations," explained "Abby". "We had the funding we needed."

If Kushnir was unhappy about HRC's or Sullivan's involvement with MERI, she apparently didn't let on to anyone. "Kathy is a tremendous, amazing leader," said "Jamie". "She would have fought to the death (for marriage equality.)"

"Jamie" suggested that HRC organizers had lied to MERI supporters. "Multiple times, I heard them telling people that the committee vote was definitely happening the following week, when I confronted them, they admitted they knew they were lying, but it helps to 'build a sense of urgency,'" said the source.

Fischer claims he left MERI because he was disappointed with the direction of the organization, but he credited Sullivan for "trying to turn around a rather dysfunctional organization" in an interview with The Providence Phoenix

"We were in great shape," said "Jamie". "We had the votes, we had the numbers, we had the legislative contacts," he said. The legislators knew it, the community knew it. MERI had 100 people out on the streets on Election Day. No one did it better than we did. For Bill to say that is just (horse shit)."

"I thought we were doing a pretty good job," added "Abby".

Fischer declined to comment for this story.

These allegations come on the heels of former Equality Maryland Executive Director Morgan Meneses-Sheets' abrupt departure after a marriage equality bill and a measure that would have added gender identity and expression to the state's anti-discrimination law stalled.

"Jamie" said saw similarities between what happened in Maryland and what has apparently happened in Rhode Island. "It just stinks to high heaven," said the source. "The parallels are frightening."

In a message sent to MERI supporters not long after Fox's endorsement of civil unions, Sullivan claimed a "backroom deal was cut and crafted with the Senate at the expense of and without any input from anyone in the pro-equality community."

"Jamie" described Sullivan's statement an "outright, boldfaced lie." "Jamie" suggested Sullivan had discussed a "compromise" with Fox just two weeks earlier.

Sullivan declined to be interviewed for this story.

Larry Berman, Fox's spokesman, said no backroom deals had been made with MERI to push for a civil unions bill.

"Abby" said MERI could have succeeded in securing a vote on the marriage bill, if only Sullivan and HRC hadn't undermined the work of MERI's longtime staffers. "If we had focused on the Senate, we would've gotten there," she said.

"Abby" remains optimistic about the civil unions bill, but laments the loss on the marriage equality measure. "Jamie" emphatically stressed nobody "has an axe to grind."

"Everybody just wants the community to know the truth," added the source.

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.

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