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JOAN VENNOCHI

The gay marriage risk

YOU CAN SAY this much about Massachusetts liberals. The truest are not wafflers, and they are not afraid to stand up for something controversial.

Delegates to the Massachusetts Democratic Party convention voted overwhelmingly to endorse same-sex marriage in their platform. They are not the first to do so. State Democratic parties in Iowa and Colorado gave similar endorsements last year. But there is an added political overlay when a Massachusetts liberal acts like a Massachusetts liberal. It solidifies the stereotype that Republicans now revel in running against.

In many parts of the country, and in some parts of the Bay State as well, a Massachusetts liberal is now a reviled species. Nationally, Democrats are running from the left to the middle as fast as they can.

But Philip W. Johnston, the Massachusetts Democratic state party chairman, doesn't care. He said he proposed the platform resolution, and delegates backed it, because ''it's the right thing to do."

Adds Johnston: ''My position is, let us in Massachusetts break new ground, I don't care. It's like abortion; you are either for it, or against it. It's not like 'maybe' will suffice. I think it's important to take a position."

Those are brave words, given the conventional wisdom that gay marriage helped defeat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential contest.

The controversy was fueled in Massachusetts, the first state to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Debate over it remains the flashpoint of a dramatic cultural divide. No state has followed the Commonwealth's lead in legalizing same-sex marriage, and 14 states in the last nine months have voted to ban it.

Asked if the state party's gay marriage resolution reinforces the liberal label, making it even harder for another Massachusetts Democrat to run for president, Johnston replies: ''I don't know. But you can't make decisions about public policy based on whether people can run for president from Massachusetts."

The Bay State's senior senator, Edward M. Kennedy, endorsed the party's platform resolution. However, Kerry moved quickly to distance himself, saying in Baton Rouge, La., ''I think it's the wrong thing and I'm not sure it reflects the broad view of the Democratic Party in our state."

In Massachusetts, two of three likely Democratic gubernatorial candidates -- former US assistant attorney general Deval Patrick and Secretary of State William F. Galvin -- support the platform resolution.

But state Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly did not mention gay marriage in his speech to delegates and refused afterward to say whether he supported the platform change.

Of Kerry's position, Johnston said, ''I was disappointed." Johnston said he believes Reilly will be forced to state a position on the platform resolution and was ''delighted" that Galvin backed it: ''It gave our position a lot of legitimacy. He is viewed as an economic populist and a social conservative. For him to say, 'this is fine,' that was a very important moment."

You can take many lessons from the 2004 election. One lesson is that some voters vehemently oppose same-sex marriage. Another is that some voters shrink from a candidate who tries to be for and against controversial issues like abortion and gay marriage.

The liberal or conservative base sees black or white and votes accordingly; some voters in the middle respect a strong position, even if it runs counter to their own. That would lend support to Johnston's theory that is important to take a stand, even if it is controversial.

However, there is risk in this gay marriage resolution, in Massachusetts, too. Advocates argue same-sex marriage is a pressing civil rights issue. But is it really the most pressing issue in this state? Even people who support same-sex marriage may conclude that with this emphasis, the Democratic Party is losing its focus on economic issues that win elections. In that case, the party nomination could be worthless, especially if the nominee is viewed by the general electorate as a pawn of one special interest group.

For those who watch politics, it is an interesting laboratory test case of conviction versus expediency, of boldly pushing left rather than safely hugging the middle. In a party filled with equivocators on controversial social issues, the liberal Democrats who run the party here are taking a liberal position and sticking with it, without apology -- and without regard for those who call them out of touch and worse.

No one knows if it is a winning strategy, but at least it's not a waffling one.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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