Monday, March 26, 2007

ConCon Boom Boom

As early as the second week of May, the herds, hordes and horrids will battle on Beacon Hill. Actually, the skirmishes preceding this year's Constitutional Convention (ConCon) have been fought constantly from early January, when the previous ConCon advanced the anti-marriage-equality amendment to this one.

On paper at least, the actual battle could flare and flash out on May 9th. No one expects that though. The norm of these joint legislative sessions is for the old boys and girls to gather, futz over the agenda and agree when they intend to meet again for the real business. That often is June and may be in the fall or in such rare cases as this year, the last possible session at the start of January.

Show Time on Beacon Street

This time, it makes a difference, a big difference.

The ballot-initiative rules strongly favor the petitioners. While they have to get two successive ConCons to pass their measure in identical wording to get it on the ballot, only 25% of the 200 legislators have to support it to pass it. That contrasts to 50% for a measure proposed by a legislature. While a citizen-petition initiative is not a mandated pass-through for legislature, it's close enough.

A patently unconstitutional initiative should not get as far as a ConCon. Here, we hold that this one to strip homosexual couples of their right to marry should not have advanced, both because of the fraud in the signature-gathering phase and its intent to overturn a judicial decision (the Goodridge one). Then Attorney General Thomas Reilly did not have the nerve and wisdom to turn this controversial measure down though. So here we are after yet another year of angst and divisiveness.

This go, those favoring the amendment would love to see it come to a vote the moment the ConCon opens. In January, with the previous General Court makeup, 62 lawmakers voted to advance the amendment. After the election the anti-marriage-equality forces hoped they could still claim 58 in their pockets.

The erstwhile gormless and sometimes gutless Senate President Bobby Travaglini seemed to hold a grudge. He really wanted civil unions instead of full homosexual marriage. Ever since the Supreme Judicial Court told him that didn't meet the law, he has been truculent about it all. Whether that's the reason he pushed the amendment through January's ConCon is not important, merely that he did.

His replacement, Therese Murray, is a strong marriage-equality supporter, but she will not use parliamentary procedures to defeat this amendment, she says. That leaves the good guys to scramble and cajole in efforts to sway nine or more legislators to defeat the amendment by vote or abstention.

Have Times Changed Enough?

A couple of years ago, there surely would have been no question that the anti-gay and anti-marriage-equality forces would have held sway in a ConCon. Since though, the squawking panic calls have proven that much bluster. We have all seen:
  • Marriage as an institution was staggering and troubled decades before there was such a thing as legal SSM.
  • Same-sex couples and parents are just like different-sex ones.
  • The terrible social and financial calamities the anti folk promised never happened.
  • Nothing bad and only good has come of SSM.
  • The pseudo-history and pseudo-traditions the anti people used to try to justify their discrimination are based in exaggeration and deceit.
Perhaps more powerful to the lawmakers is in the past three years of SSM here voters have gotten to know and notice gay couples and parents. The acceptance of them as friends, coworkers, neighbors and just plain folk grows from poll to poll.

The legislators who perceived that their constituents wanted them to vote against SSM, even to the point of stripping a minority of an existing right, are in a more difficult place now. If they look at the polls and speak to their voters in their districts -- as all are certain to do, will there be five or six or eight lawmakers who admit that times have changed?

How Influential the Leaders?

Now we have the the speaker of the house, Sal DiMasi, as well as the senate president, wanting to defeat the amendment and not institutionalize discrimination. They both claim, as does Gov. Deval Patrick, that they will lobby hard to defeat the amendment in a ConCon vote.

Likewise, the main proponent organization to defeat it, MassEquality, is doing its best to work the waffling and even the anti-SSM legislators. According to a Bay Windows article:
“We are very actively going at picking up at least nine [votes],” said (Campaign Director Marc) Solomon, “and I generally talk about [getting] 15 votes.” Toward that end, the organization has zeroed in on roughly 30 lawmakers who don’t approach the issue with a fundamental belief that gays and lesbians should not have equal rights. “We want to focus on the ones who don’t approach it from that standpoint, but [they] nevertheless have political concerns or have concerns about the process or think that people should have a right to vote,” (MassEquality Political Director Matt) McTighe explained. “We want to talk to them and really make sure that they understand and know that it is wrong to vote on rights and that [LGBT] families truly will be impacted by this discriminatory amendment.”
Of course, the other side is just as actively at work, trying not to lose anyone to common sense, compassion or fairness. How much the benign reality of SSM has blunted their arguments remains to be seen.

Down near the Rhode Island border, the Sun Chronicle piece on this has a thought-provoking take on it. They quote one anti-marriage-equality lawmaker as being pessimistic about passing the amendment to the ballot. Rep. Betty Poirier (R-North Attleboro) was a bit paranoid about the ConCon, particularly in light of Murray's pledge to allow a vote.

Poirier "predicted that legislative leaders would not hold another constitutional convention until they are sure they have enough votes to defeat the amendment. 'I'm not optimistic at all,' she said. 'I don't hold out a lot of hope.'" Also, she feared a legislative boycott to avoid having a vote at all.

While that is heartening here, such comments surely will not make Solomon or Patrick or Murray or DiMasi stop talking. This is a defining moment for the new administration and General Court. As Patrick noted at his town meeting in Boston Saturday, if the amendment passes, the resulting campaign will be two years of distraction from the important business of government reform and progress.

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