Finneran's departure a boon to gay marriage advocates

The Tuesday resignation of Massachusetts Democratic house speaker Thomas M. Finneran is being hailed by gay rights activists as a major victory in the fight against a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Finneran, who supported the effort to bring the marriage ban to voters in November 2006, will be replaced by his top lieutenant, majority leader Salvatore F. DiMasi, whose arrival is expected to shift the Massachusetts legislative agenda to the left on social issues such as gay rights, abortion, and stem cell research. DiMasi opposed the marriage ban effort.

Finneran, 54, leaves the house after eight years as one of the most powerful and contentious figures in state politics after accepting a post as president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. He will continue to serve as representative until January. DiMasi, a Democrat from Boston's North End neighborhood who is more liberal than Finneran on social issues, said he would outline his priorities on Wednesday. "I'm very grateful for all my colleagues' support and their expression of confidence in me," he said. DiMasi won support for the top post after his nearest competitor, house ways and means chairman John H. Rogers (D-Norwood), dropped out of the running.

Gay rights advocates hailed the change. In this year's contentious gay marriage debate, DiMasi was outspoken, taking to the house floor to defend marriage rights for same-sex couples. Finneran was a strong opponent of same-sex marriage. In January the legislature will convene for the second phase of debate on a proposed constitutional amendment, which would ban gay marriage but legalize civil unions if approved by voters in November 2006. The legislature under Finneran's leadership gave preliminary approval to the amendment earlier this year.

Even lawmakers who support same-sex marriage, however, are dubious about whether a change at the top will have any impact on the rank-and-file, who were forced to stake out their position on gay marriage repeatedly this year. "We're ecstatic," said Arline Isaacson, coleader of the Massachusetts Gay
and Lesbian Political Caucus. "While this certainly does not guarantee a change in the outcome, it sure as heck helps." Critics of gay marriage said DiMasi must respect those with differing views. Kris Minneau, leader of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said that DiMasi needs to heed the wishes of citizens who support the traditional definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

One of DiMasi's first tasks will be to unify the Democratic Party before the November elections, especially in light of Gov. Mitt Romney's well-financed efforts to elect more Republicans. Romney has used Finneran as an example of entrenched Democratic control on Beacon Hill. All 200 legislative seats are up for grabs. Romney, who had a sometimes contentious relationship with Finneran, said he looks forward to working with DiMasi. "I think we have a good relationship with Sal DiMasi," Romney said. "We have a good open dialogue.... One of the things that I like about Sal DiMasi is that he's real clear where he stands, what he stands for, and we're able to have confidence in what one another says."

Finneran's decision to leave the house after 26 years came amid a federal investigation into his role in the redrawing of house districts. A panel of federal appeals court judges openly questioned the credibility of his testimony in a lawsuit claiming the map was drawn to favor incumbent lawmakers, including Finneran. Finneran said a federal investigation launched earlier this year had "zero"
influence on his decision. "The biggest mistake that happens in professional sports and politics is you stay too long," Finneran said. "I did not want to stay too long. I did not want to be chased, hounded, or in any other way nudged from office.... I wanted to do this on my own time, in my own terms."

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