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A rift on gay unions fuels a coup at polls

How Somerville activist ousted a fixture

Shortly after the Supreme Judicial Court handed down its ruling legalizing same-sex marriage on Nov. 18, state Representative Vincent P. Ciampa was visited by a 26-year-old constituent named Carl Sciortino, who wanted to know if the Somerville legislator favored a constitutional ban on same-sex matrimony.

Ciampa said he would support such a ban, as well as one on Vermont-style civil unions. Sciortino, a political neophyte who is gay, decided that someone should run against the veteran.

That someone ended up being Carl Sciortino.

On Sept. 14, Sciortino beat Ciampa in a tight Democratic primary for the 34th Middlesex district. It was a stunning upset; Ciampa, a lieutenant to House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, had held the seat for 16 years and had enjoyed the endorsement of Somerville's mayor, Joseph A. Curtatone, and its establishment.

But it was also evidence that the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts has emerged as a galvanizing issue in this fall's legislative elections, adding an unpredictable factor to the mix. For those who favor same-sex marriage, the removal of Ciampa from his once-safe Somerville seat is the most significant election victory so far.

In the 34th Middlesex, the same-sex marriage issue drew activists to volunteer for Sciortino. They raised money and forged alliances for him. US Representative Barney Frank lent his name to a fund-raising letter, and Sciortino got help from a website run by supporters of same-sex marriage that steered donations from outside Massachusetts to Sciortino.

As the November general election approaches, polls show that same-sex marriage is not a pressing issue for a majority of voters, but strategists and activists on both sides see it as potentially bringing new energy to legislative races. Advisers to Governor Mitt Romney say he won't highlight the issue, despite his fervent opposition, as he tries to seat Republicans in the Democrat-run Legislature. The closely divided Legislature will decide in the next two years whether to place an initiative banning same-sex marriage on the November 2006 ballot.

Ciampa's opposition to gay marriage alarmed some with little history of activism, such as Dorene Bowe-Shulman, a Somerville resident who had resigned herself to a representative who opposes benefits for gay couples.

With the announcement of Sciortino's candidacy, Bowe-Shulman and her same-sex spouse sprang into action, donating $500 each to his campaign, throwing a fund-raiser at their home, volunteering to knock on doors, and rousing friends and family for support.

''I had never volunteered before in my life," said Bowe-Shulman, 39, a cancer patient who had asked Ciampa to change his position so she could access her partner's health insurance benefits, to no avail. ''We had never, never done something like this. I've never solicited friends for cancer funding, and I did phone calling. We had to eat macaroni and cheese for a few weeks, but it was worth it. This was our lives."

Sciortino, who has no opponent in the general election, sees the same-sex marriage question as a key motivating factor in his grass-roots support, even if he chalks up his victory to a larger message hinged on his message, which played well with the district's struggling working families and recent college graduates.

''The push is to look back now and say: 'How did this guy take out Vinny Ciampa?' And they all think it was gay marriage and gay money, but it wasn't," said Sciortino, a Connecticut native who moved to Somerville eight years ago while seeking his bachelor's in biology from Tufts. ''But the same-sex marriage issue was an issue that I think inspired some of our volunteers and supporters to feel more passionate about our campaign."

Ciampa did not return calls seeking comment.

To be sure, the race for the 34th Middlesex District, which includes western portions of Somerville and Medford, was not won solely on the same-sex marriage issue. After all, Sciortino, who works for a community health organization in Boston, hardly mentioned the issue on the hustings, made little note of his position in numerous campaign mailings, and spent almost all of his time discussing tax policy, health-care funding, and public education.

Several observers, longtime residents, and local political activists attribute Ciampa's loss mostly to Sciortino's tireless effort to knock on almost every door in the district, some of them twice, and to the deluge of mailings, volunteer house calls, and phone messages his campaign put forth.

''He worked hard; you have to give him credit," Curtatone said of Sciortino, even as he credited Ciampa with being a good representative for his district.

John S. Dillon, a retired trucker who has lived in the district for 37 years and who voted for Ciampa, said the view from his Electric Avenue front porch was clear: Ciampa ''didn't get out and go."

Dillon's neighbor, Thomas Ross, a retired insurance worker and 35-year district resident, said he felt likewise. ''Ciampa came by here, but he was late in the game," Ross said.

Sciortino paid both men a visit, as did his volunteers. And both men received numerous mailings and phone messages. Neither recalled the issue of same-sex marriage coming up.

But the issue provided a foundation upon which all others rested. It was Sciortino's position on same-sex marriage that prodded Frank, the congressman from Newton, to list himself as a cohost of an August fund-raiser for Sciortino. The candidate's stance against a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage won Sciortino a spot on SupportEquality.org, which is funneling campaign donations into the coffers of sympathetic state legislative candidates. It also got Sciortino help from MassEquality, a group fighting to uphold the SJC's decision. Mass-Equality provided volunteers to Sciortino's campaign.

In fact, Sciortino even got a $500 contribution from Richard Babson, a gay Boston executive who is running on the Republican ticket for the Eighth Suffolk House district, which is being vacated by Representative Paul C. Demakis.

''The only reason Carl was able to be competitive and raise so much money was because the gay marriage issue exemplified how different Representative Ciampa's record was than his district's," said Marty Martinez, a Somerville Democratic activist who also thought about running against Ciampa. ''People here always say Ciampa was aligned with Finneran, wouldn't support raising the income tax during struggles with local aid, and a lot of those issues don't really resonate.

''But on the gay marriage issue, it was clear that he wasn't speaking out for residents here," Martinez said. ''It was the straw that broke the camel's back, and that's why people poured out in droves" to help Sciortino.

With a solid base keyed up about the same-sex marriage issue -- about 100 volunteers worked for Sciortino over the summer -- he drew the financial and organizational help of more mainstream organizations. They included the National Organization for Women-Massachusetts, Neighbor to Neighbor of Massachusetts, and the Commonwealth Coalition.

Harris Gruman, Neighbor to Neighbor's state director, said the organization had agreed to back Sciortino in part after it had become clear that he had generated significant support among same-sex marriage activists, giving him a volunteer corps to give Ciampa a viable challenge.

In the end, Gruman said, Neighbor to Neighbor ''spent at least $2,000 in in-kind staff time and raised $5,000 in cash for the candidate, spent another $4,000 in mail, and we involved 75 to 100 people in the campaign." The group offered political consultancy, field planning, and training to volunteers.

For many backers of Sciortino, Gruman said, same-sex marriage was the prime motivator.

''I was going door to door with a volunteer who was talking brilliantly about the tax issue and the need for progressive state revenue to deal with school funding, and I thought he must be an activist on those issues," Gruman said. ''But when I asked him what his motivation was, he said, 'I'm getting married in two months, and I want it to last beyond 2006.' "

Raphael Lewis can be reached at rlewis@globe.com.

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