The political action committee trying to elect state lawmakers who support same-sex marriage is going all-out to defeat Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael McCaffrey. But Paul Jabour, the committee’s vice chairman, isn’t getting the same treatment.
Supporters of Maura Kelly, who’s challenging the Providence state senator in the District 5 Democratic primary, were dismayed Wednesday when the PAC – Fight Back RI – didn’t include her on its list of endorsements despite the newcomer’s strong support of same-sex marriage.
On Tuesday night, Jabour gave a somewhat confusing three-and-a-half-minute answer when asked about his position on the issue at a candidates forum hosted by the West Broadway Neighborhood Association.
“Do I support gay marriage? The answer is no,” Jabour said. “I support civil unions. I’m not going to lie to my community.”
He continued: “But if that bill gets to the Senate floor and my constituency tells me that they want me to vote for it, and it’s overwhelming, then I’m obligated to do what my constituency wants because that’s what I was elected for – not based on my personal beliefs, but what my constituency beliefs. And if they believe that I should vote for it, and there’s a majority of people in this neighborhood that tell me they want me to vote for it, then I’ll have to change my position.”
“But until then, I’m not going to run from my position,” Jabour said, adding: “Do you know what a ‘mugwump‘ is? One minute you’re here, the next minute – you’re sitting at a bar with a mug, and you flip it from one side. I’m not a flipper.”
Kelly’s answer was more direct: “I support full marriage equality,” she said. “I’m excited to sponsor that legislation in the Senate.”
Ray Sullivan, Fight Back RI’s campaign director and executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, said his organization is “grateful” that Kelly supports same-sex marriage and acknowledged Jabour’s position is a riddle.
“I watched Senator Jabour’s response to that question from the audience three or four times and I still don’t know what it means,” Sullivan said. “I took it to mean that he understands that a majority in his district is pro-equality and so he said while he’s personally not pro-equality he believes that his district is and so he’ll vote how his district wants him to.”
One factor in the Jabour-Kelly race is the challenger’s close ties to two officials who’ve angered Rhode Island’s public-sector unions.
Kelly worked for Point Judith Capital, Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s former venture capital firm, and later for Engage Rhode Island, the deep-pocketed advocacy group that gave Raimondo crucial support in passing last year’s pension law. She is also an advocate of charter schools and now works for Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.
Sullivan denied that pressure from liberal allies in the union movement kept Fight Back RI from endorsing Kelly. “We focused on places where we thought we could – where we had good and credible candidates who could challenge sitting incumbents,” he said, saying the number of primary endorsements totaled 19 because of limited organizational “bandwidth.”
At the candidates forum, Jabour confirmed the widespread consensus among political observers that Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed and her Democratic leadership team is the main obstacle to passing same-sex marriage, which is backed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee and House Speaker Gordon Fox.
“The Senate has been the place where the gay marriage bill has stopped,” Jabour said. “Why has it stopped in the Senate? It stopped in the Senate because it does not have the support to pass.” McCaffrey recently echoed Jabour’s comments.
“The committee itself did not have the votes to pass the gay marriage bill as presented, so there was a compromise struck,” Jabour said. “That compromise was civil unions. And that’s the history of it – whether people like it or not, that’s the history of it.”
“The question now is, will that change come 2013?” he added. “Will there be such a change in the membership that the bill will pass? … I don’t think they have the votes to get it out of the Judiciary Committee.”
Another Democratic primary where Fight Back RI remained neutral is the high-profile Senate race between Gayle Goldin and Maryellen Butke on Providence’s East Side. Goldin is straight and Butke is a lesbian, but both women support gay marriage. Sullivan said the organization doesn’t endorse candidates based on their sexual orientation.
“If we only endorsed out candidates it would be a pretty short list,” he said. “But that being said, there’s a lot more out candidates running this cycle than I can remember and I think the Butke-Goldin race is a sign that the times are changing.”
People for Rhode Island’s Future, a new pro-gay-marriage group funding primary challenges with money from wealthy Denver activist Tim Gill and the literary agent, is also remaining neutral in both the Jabour-Kelly and Goldin-Butke races.
At a forum in Central Falls on Wednesday night, two other Democratic Senate candidates disclosed their views on the issue. Incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Crowley said she supports legalizing same-sex marriage, while her challenger Joseph Moran said he opposes it. They are competing in Senate District 16.
An earlier version of this story transcribed the phrase “mugwump” incorrectly.