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Waves of change swept away bid vs. gay nuptials

Until last week, gay marriage advocates never once believed they could defeat a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on its merits.

Desperate to prevent Massachusetts legislators from putting the measure on the ballot, they resorted to parliamentary tricks -- adjournments, recesses, tactical maneuvers -- to avoid or delay the up-or-down roll calls they knew they would lose, especially in years when their opponents needed support from just a quarter of the state's 200 lawmakers to move the ballot question forward.

"We knew we couldn't stop 50 legislators from putting it on the ballot," said Arline Isaacson, who led lobbying efforts against the amendment during the many times it came up for votes over the past six years. "There was no other way to kill it."

But Thursday, for the first time, they defeated the amendment , holding their opponents to just 45 votes. What happened between 2001 and 2007 was nothing less than a transformation on Beacon Hill, and in the state beyond.

Change came suddenly in some quarters: A handful of Supreme Judicial Court judges got out ahead of the Legislature, allowing gays and lesbians to marry. And leaders who were determined to get the gay marriage ban before voters were replaced by a governor, a Senate president, and a House speaker far less friendly to that cause.

But mostly, Thursday's vote was the result of far more gradual, subtle changes: public opinion polls inching up year by year in favor of gay marriage; the rising visibility of same-sex couples in neighborhoods and in State House hallways; and legislators grappling with the issue, changing their minds, one by one.

"I said from the beginning, time will be our friend on this," said Stanley C. Rosenberg , a Northampton senator who has supported gay marriage since the first pitched battles on Beacon Hill, two years before the SJC decision. "We had to build a majority where there was none. People had to get their minds around this."

As gay marriage opponents see it, far less lofty factors were at work: namely, deal-making and arm-twisting.

"This didn't happen over years," said Kris Mineau , president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which led the fight for the amendment. "This was over the last few days. We were absolutely outgunned with financial resources."

Both sides agree that Governor Deval Patrick, Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi , and Senate President Therese Murray were largely responsible for Thursday's outcome, having placed their considerable combined heft behind the gay marriage advocates.

Mineau said rumors were legion of the leaders offering legislators patronage jobs in return for their votes against the amendment. "When there's that much smoke in the building," he said, "there's got to be fire."

Isaacson and the administration have vehemently denied that any such deals were made, and said the three leaders had merely lobbied legislators harder than ever before on issues of equity.

The three leaders replaced former governor Mitt Romney, a staunch opponent of gay marriage, former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran, a conservative Catholic who was equally opposed, and onetime senate president Robert E. Travaglini , who refused to delay or adjourn votes when gay marriage advocates often implored him to.

"Certainly having a friend in the corner office or having a speaker or a Senate president who agrees with you on any issue is helpful," said Ed Saunders , executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

The legislators have changed, too, since 2001.

Prominent foes of gay marriage have left Beacon Hill. Others had high-profile conversions to the other side, notably Eugene L. O'Flaherty , a Democrat from Chelsea who announced his change of heart in a newspaper for gays and lesbians in 2005, and House majority leader John H. Rogers , who, after sponsoring legislation restricting the rights of gay and lesbian couples in the 1990s, went against an amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions in 2003.

Over the years, one legislator after another moved into the pro-gay-marriage camp, or at least into the anti amendment one. Some did so after immense personal struggles over the issue; some after they discovered that switching sides had few electoral costs.

In 2004, the year of the most impassioned debate over gay marriage, all of the lawmakers who switched their positions to oppose the ban were reelected, even though supporters of the amendment had warned them of bruising battles and certain defeat.

After Thursday's vote, Mineau and others said legislators were rejecting the will, and the well-being, of their constituents, who in turn seem less willing to hold their elected officials accountable these days.

"It has gotten more difficult for us to fight this over the years," Saunders said. "We have individuals holding public office today who don't vote according to their faith or their values, but more for political correctness."

Gay-marriage advocates started the fight with a "couple dozen people in 2001, and we ended [Thursday] with 151," Rosenberg said. He saw dozens of legislators gradually move from opposition to neutrality to support, he said.

"Only two elected officials from the entire city of Boston voted for the traditional definition of marriage," said former Boston mayor and Vatican Ambassador Raymond Flynn.

"The whole thing shows how radically the city and state have changed. There is now a small but well-organized and active group of special interests that pretty much control politics and how elected officials vote."

But over the years, polls have suggested an electorate increasingly accepting of gay marriage. A 2005 Globe poll indicated that 56 percent of the state's residents oppose a gay marriage ban, including 49 percent of Catholics.

That may be because of the nearly 10,000 gay and lesbian marriages that have taken place in Massachusetts since May 2004, when the SJC's decision took effect.

Same-sex couples have grown more visible in cities and towns, and more vocal, adding their voices to those of the traditionally influential Catholic Church and other more conservative groups on Beacon Hill, personally appealing to legislators in growing numbers. Legislators who switched their votes last week repeatedly cited those appeals as central to their decisions.

But legislators' eyes also opened to an even more politically potent fact, Isaacson said: that most of their constituents weren't losing sleep over gay marriage.

"They care more about healthcare and the economy," she said. "This wasn't a high priority, so how they voted wasn't going to hurt them."

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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