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Vermont governor Peter Shumlin spoke about his state's journey toward
marriage equality in Rhode Island, where he urged lawmakers to put aside any fears and vote on the right side of history.
Shumlin visited Thursday afternoon at the invitation of Marriage Equality Rhode Island, which organized a news conference in Providence with Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee. The Vermont governor also met with leaders from the legislature, which is considering a marriage equality bill this session.
"It was an honor for me to meet with the governor and so many legislators who are working so hard to pass marriage equality," Shumlin said in a telephone interview with The Advocate after the meetings. "Rhode Island has an opportunity to join their neighboring states in what I call the last civil rights struggle in America, to stand up on the right side of history for all families who want to declare their love for each other for the rest of their lives."
Vermont was the first state to enact marriage equality legislation in 2009, when Shumlin played a leading role as senate president. He also was instrumental in the passage of civil unions in 2000, at the time a groundbreaking step for equality.
However, the Democrat said that public attitudes and conditions have changed, making marriage equality not only the right thing to do but also the smarter political choice for Rhode Island lawmakers. A competing civil unions measure is pending in the state legislature.
"Vermont passed civil unions over a decade ago when most states had no form of marriage rights," he said. "It was an incremental step and a half step. And we knew it at the time. After we passed it, lots of other states adopted civil unions. This civil rights struggle has moved relatively quickly in the past decade."
Shumlin said that unlike the situation in Vermont in 2009, when opinions on marriage equality were split, recent polls show that a majority of Rhode Islanders favor marriage equality. He also noted that he won a five-way gubernatorial primary after leading the marriage equality push in Vermont.
"Vermont's experience is that this is an issue where the public is ahead of the politicians and public officials have a lot of fear voting on civil rights," he said. "What we have found in Vermont is that the only thing to fear is fear itself."
During his visit, Shumlin also met privately with Chafee, an independent who reiterated his support in a news release from Marriage Equality Rhode Island.
"As I stated in my inaugural address, I believe marriage equality is not just an issue of civil rights, but an integral element of economic development as well," he said. "I believe that marriage equality will make the Ocean State a better place to live and do business for all Rhode Islanders by growing the pool of potential employers and residents who might make our great state their home. I appreciate Governor Shumlin taking the time to travel here and share his thoughtful and valuable insights from Vermont's decade-long experience with establishing full marriage equality."
Despite high-profile hearings earlier this year in the Democratic-controlled senate and house, no votes have been scheduled to advance the marriage equality bill for further debate. Advocates feel more hopeful of a vote first in the house led by speaker Gordon Fox, who is gay and cosponsors the legislation. Senate president Teresa Paiva-Weed is opposed, and she did not meet with Shumlin Thursday.
"She had other business but I'd be happy to meet with her anytime," he said.
Marriage Equality Rhode Island spokesman Bill Fischer described the visit as a "robust and productive afternoon," even if no dates for committee votes have been set.
"We remain optimistic that a vote in the house will be in the near future," he said.
The Rhode Island legislative session ends in June.