Rhode Island’s House of Representatives will gather at 4 p.m. for a historic vote to legalize same-sex marriage. It will almost certainly mark the first time either chamber of the General Assembly backs the idea. (WPRI will stream the debate live online.)
While there’s no doubt the issue remains controversial, polling suggests House lawmakers will be acting in line with public opinion if it approves gay marriage today.
Last September, a WPRI 12 poll showed same-sex marriage enjoys significant support among Rhode Islanders, with 56% of voters in favor of legalization, 36% opposed and 8% unsure.
Support for same-sex marriage is fairly broad among different types of voters, with one exception: Republicans. Rhode Island GOP voters are the only group that has a majority against legalization, with 59% opposed (and 40% strongly opposed). Voters ages 60 and older are closely split, with 49% of seniors in favor and 43% opposed.
Unsurprisingly, Democrats and voters ages 18 to 39 are the strongest supporters of allowing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island: 72% of Democrats and 64% of 18- to 39-year-olds are in favor. Nearly half of voters in each group say they’re strongly in favor.
Legalizing same-sex marriage in Rhode Island also has majority support from voters in union households (64%), voters ages 40 to 59 (60%), women (58%), men (54%) and independents (50%). The telephone interview poll with 501 likely Rhode Island voters was conducted Sept. 26 to 29 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus approximately 4.38 percentage points.
The September WPRI poll is just the most recent to find majority support for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island. Surveys from Public Policy Polling in 2011 and Brown University in 2009 led to similar results.
The polling suggests it’s probably inevitable that same-sex marriage will be legalized at some point in Rhode Island, the only New England state where it’s not allowed, particularly if supporters can capitalize on their advantage in the court of public opinion. Still, it may take longer than one expects at first glance because of the conservative Democrats who control the Senate.
It’s widely known that Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed of Newport opposes same-sex marriage, although she says she won’t block a committee vote this session. Another opponent is Warwick Sen. Michael McCaffrey, who not only chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee but eventually may succeed Paiva Weed as Senate leader. And just this week Paiva Weed’s powerful No. 2, Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, co-sponsored a constitutional amendment [pdf] to ban same-sex marriage being pushed by influential Providence Sen. Frank Ciccone, another Democrat.
McCaffrey, who fought off a tough primary challenge from a same-sex supporter last year, says he won’t hold hearings until “sometime in the spring,” telling The Journal: “Obviously, there are more important things than gay marriage to worry about in the state of Rhode Island right now.”
Still, the pressure on Senate leadership to pass same-sex marriage will only grow in the coming years – and their opposition could eventually become a political problem for liberal lawmakers like Cranston Sen. Joshua Miller and Providence Sen. Gayle Goldin, who’ll have to explain to activists in their districts why they empower a leadership team on Smith Hill that blocks a policy which is quickly becoming a core Democratic priority.
More Nesi’s Notes coverage of Rhode Island’s same-sex marriage debate:
- No guarantee key RI Senate panel will OK same-sex marriage (Dec. 17)
- 2013 could be a big year for same-sex marriage in Rhode Island (Dec. 11)
- Leading gay-marriage opponent Schubert preps for fight in RI (Oct. 10)
- Fox: Gay marriage vote still set for 2013 despite Senate losses (Sept. 12)
- Gay marriage group snubs Kelly despite Jabour’s opposition (Sept. 8)
- Rhoda Perry: McCaffrey is ‘hurtful, inaccurate’ on gay marriage (Aug. 17)
- Is the Rhode Island Senate warming up to same-sex marriage? (May 10)
(photo: Ted Nesi/WPRI)