The November election in Massachusetts was supposed to be phase 2 in the state's epic gay rights battle, a time for political payback and citizen retaliation for votes cast during this year's debate on gay marriage. But the divisive issue, which dominated statehouse discourse after the state's high court legalized gay marriage a year ago, is not playing a highly visible role in legislative races that could ultimately determine the fate of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.
"I've been knocking on thousands of doors, and I'm not asked about this issue very frequently," said Democrat Angus McQuilken, a gay rights supporter engaged in a rematch with Republican senator Scott Brown, an opponent of same-sex marriage.
Candidates on both sides say most voters are placing other issues higher on their priority list, such as taxes and the economy. Political analysts argue that gay marriage has slipped from the spotlight because most candidates--regardless of their views--realize it is simply not a winning issue in a deeply
divided state. "I think that it's a two-edged sword and candidates can't touch it without getting sliced by one side of the blade," said Jeffrey Berry, political science professor at Tufts University. "Whatever side they're on, there are voters who are passionately opposed to that view."
The issue dates to a ruling a year ago by Massachusetts's highest court that said gay couples had a right under the state's constitution to marry. The ruling took effect in May with considerable fanfare as gay couples around the state flocked to city halls to apply for marriage licenses. In between, the legislature held a protracted debate that saw citizens clashing in the hallways of the statehouse. What emerged was a narrowly approved amendment that would ban gay marriage while legalizing civil unions. The
measure must be adopted again in the upcoming two-year legislative session before going on the ballot in 2006.
Gay rights advocates need to gain at least five more supporters in the legislature to prevent the measure from going to voters.
Although advocates and foes of same-sex marriage are investing money in candidates who support their viewpoint, the action is mainly behind the scenes. The ho-hum response is in stark contrast to the Vermont elections that came after that state legalized civil unions in 2000. Seventeen Vermont lawmakers who supported civil union rights for gay couples were ousted during the fall election.
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, an ardent and outspoken opponent of gay marriage during this year's debate, has not raised gay rights as as issue during his well-financed effort to install more GOP lawmakers in the heavily Democratic legislature. "We don't hear a whole lot of people talking about gay marriage one way or another," said Tim O'Brien, executive director of the state Republican Party. "Reform, tax increases--that's what people are really caring about."
Gay rights activists say voters have simply come to realize that granting marriage rights to gay couples has had no impact on their lives. "The weddings have gone on, and there hasn't been a major catastrophe. The sky hasn't fallen," said Tom Gerace, cofounder of SupportEquality.org, a Web site that funnels contributions to pro-gay candidates involved in the toughest races.
The gay rights group Human Rights Campaign has pumped $600,000 into MassEquality.org to help with its grassroots efforts in campaigns where pro-gay candidates are in jeopardy, said Cheryl Jacques, who left the Massachusetts legislature earlier this year to head HRC.