PROVIDENCE — Same-sex marriage opponents have mounted a post-election effort to try to change Governor-elect Lincoln D. Chafee’s mind.
In his role as director of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, Christopher Plante tried to convince a top Chafee aide of the political merits of allowing voters — rather than state lawmakers — to decide the issue during a 2012 public referendum.
Plante said he dropped by Chafee’s transition office unannounced about two weeks ago, and came away from his conversation with aide Michael Trainor believing that the governor-elect was open to sitting down and talking with people on all sides of the gay-marriage debate.
Hence his “surprise” when he received a letter from Trainor, reaffirming the position that Chafee stated repeatedly through his campaign for governor over the last year. It said: “The governor elect feels that the issue should be addressed as soon as possible by the General Assembly, and does not believe that the question should be decided by a ballot referendum.”
In his Nov. 16 letter to Plante, Trainor also reiterated Chafee’s belief that: “Marriage equality is a basic right that should be extended to all Rhode Islanders — a question not only of fairness and justice, but of economic development as well.”
“I was surprised,” said Plante on Tuesday, “because Mr. Trainor indicated that he thought that Governor-elect Chafee would sit down at the table with all parties ... I left there thinking that maybe we’ll get a roundtable. We’ll get ‘Marriage Equality’ ... We’ll get NOMRI to sit at the table and talk about how we are going to go forward on this ... But what he has done is rejected our position out of hand.”
The push to allow same-sex marriage in Rhode Island dates back more than a decade, but none of the bills have made any progress in the face of opposition by past leaders of the General Assembly and an almost certain veto by lame-duck Governor Carcieri. But the political calculus has changed with a governor-elect and a House speaker who support same-sex marriage, and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, a longtime opponent, indicating she would not block a Senate vote if a Senate committee approved a same-sex marriage bill.
According to its national website, NOM was founded in 2007 in response to “the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures.”
Asked on Tuesday what led him to believe Chafee would veer from his previously stated position, Plante laughed, then answered this way: “What insanity got into my mind? That I have real and credible polling data that shows that 80 percent of Rhode Islanders want it on the ballot ... And he was elected with — what? — 36 percent of the vote, fewer popular votes than (unsuccessful independent lieutenant governor candidate) Bob Healey got.”
Plante alluded to a series of recent polls of roughly 400 “randomly selected voters” that retired Rhode Island College Prof. Victor Profughi’s Quest Research did for the local National Organization for Marriage chapter, at a cost of roughly $8,000 each.
One of the polling questions was framed this way: “Voters in thirty states in America have had the opportunity to decide whether gay marriage would be legalized in their state. Do you think Rhode Island voters should also have an opportunity to vote on this issue?” In June 2009, 84 percent said yes. In December 2009 and August 2010, 82 percent said yes.
Another question asked those participating in the poll was whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “The people of Rhode Island themselves should decide the question of marriage, not judges or backroom politicians.” Only 22.87 percent disagreed or had no opinion.
By mid-afternoon, a public-relations firm had issued this statement for Plante: “It is clear that Governor-elect Chafee intends to put fringe issues and radical politics over saving Rhode Islanders’ jobs and securing a prosperous future for our State,” but “we are confident that the majority of Assembly-women and men know there are more important things to deal with and we will support their efforts to push for a referendum.”
The Chafee camp was not pleased with what Trainor described as the “colorful verbiage” that Plante used to try to minimize the newly elected Chafee’s level of support within the electorate. Trainor called it “regrettable” and said it “certainly does not suggest that Mr. Plante is open to listening on his end.”
He also denied ever telling Plante “that the governor-elect would sit down with him.” In fact, Trainor said, his letter reflected his belief that a meeting would probably “not be productive” in light of Chafee’s “long-established position” on the issue.
But Trainor said Chafee is, in fact, open to talking with Plante one-on-one about the issue. Explaining why his own letter to Plante did not raise this possibility, Trainor said it was sent without the governor-elect’s knowledge, amid “literally hundreds of requests for meetings.”
“But now that Mr. Plante has decided to make a public issue of this, Lincoln Chafee is more than willing to have him in and to have a conversation.”