A proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages is clinging to a razor-thin margin in the Legislature, as major political figures from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill step up their attempts to kill the measure.
With a lawmaker who opposes same-sex marriage eyeing a new job and several others ready to switch their votes, Beacon Hill leaders and gay political activists are convinced that they are within at most four votes, and perhaps as few as three, of stopping the amendment from reaching the 2008 ballot and preventing a heated campaign that could draw energy and money away from the Democratic Party's national efforts.
According to senior State House sources, state Representative Brian P. Wallace, a South Boston Democrat who has voted for the amendment, is a leading candidate for a lucrative post at the Massachusetts Sports and Entertainment Commission, a move supported by legislative leaders seeking to kill the amendment. Wallace's departure from the Legislature is likely to take place before the amendment is voted on, the sources said. Wallace did not return calls made to his office and home.
At least four lawmakers who had initially voted for the gay marriage ban in January have signaled that they may switch their votes, the sources said, giving same-sex marriage supporters growing confidence they can kill the measure and spare Massachusetts from becoming the epicenter once again in the country's cultural wars during a presidential election. On May 17, 2004, just six months before the last presidential contest, the nation's first legal same-sex weddings took place in Massachusetts, following a landmark state high court decision.
The stepped-up lobbying and reports of changed votes come as same-sex marriage advocates celebrate the third anniversary of the first such weddings today with a party and a $750,000 media campaign.
A final vote by the Legislature on the constitutional ban could take place as early as June 14, when lawmakers reconvene at a constitutional convention, but would be delayed by leaders if the votes are not yet in place.
Still, few of those seeking to block the proposal would publicly predict success, beyond acknowledging that some movement is taking place.
"There are legislators who are listening closely and are receptive to us, their constituents, to the married couples that are meeting with them, and are giving serious consideration to whether it makes sense to advance this to the ballot," said Marc Solomon, campaign director for MassEquality, the group leading the fight to keep gay marriage legal here.
Solomon declined to identify the legislators that his group and its leading allies on Beacon Hill -- House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, Senate President Therese Murray, and Governor Deval Patrick -- are focusing on.
Tension over the legislative showdown is mounting as national leaders begin to press their case on Democrat-dominated Beacon Hill that the party cannot afford for Massachusetts to become a battleground over same-sex marriage next year.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi weighed in with calls in the last few days to DiMasi and Murray. She emphasized to state Democratic leaders that national Democratic officials feel strongly that a high-profile over the issue in 2008 would galvanize conservative voters nationally and undercut their efforts to capture the White House and keep control of Congress. Most observers agree that the Supreme Judicial Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage was a major hindrance to US Senator John F. Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004.
Other Washington figures are also expected to enter the fray. Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean has offered to make himself available to lobby legislative leaders. Gay activists say they have also lined up Kerry, US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and many members of the state's US House delegation.
Kris Mineau -- president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which is leading the effort to get the amendment on the ballot -- said the money and political pressure is "mind-boggling" but he is confident that same-sex marriage opponents are holding onto the eight-vote margin they had when the amendment won its first round of approval in January.
"This is a huge amount of money and a huge effort for one express purpose: to prevent the people from voting on the definition of marriage," Mineau said. "If we are going to change the definition of marriage, only people can make that decision."
According to State House sources involved in the high-stakes struggle to block the proposal, the Beacon Hill leadership is confident it is on the verge of cutting the support for the measure to as few as 52 votes out of the 200 lawmakers.
To make it to the ballot, the voter- initiated amendment must be approved by at least 50 in two consecutive legislative sessions.
If he needs votes, DiMasi is expected to call upon some of his top lieutenants, including Speaker Pro Tempore Thomas M. Petrolati of Ludlow and House and Ways Means Chair Robert A. DeLeo of Winthrop, to back off from their support of the amendment.
One target of lobbying -- Representative Paul Kujawski, a Democrat from Webster who voted for the amendment in January -- said that he is facing pressure from both sides. "I am listening to every body," said Kujawski, who represents a socially conservative district. "But if the vote were tomorrow, my vote would still be the same."
Wallace's quest for the job at the quasi-public sports and entertainment commission began well over a year ago, a senior Beacon Hill political figure confirmed yesterday, long before the intensive lobbying effort began. Still, if he resigns before the final vote on the amendment, advocates of the ban will probably charge that legislative leaders and Patrick dangled a job in front of him in order to diminish the ranks of supporters of the measure.
Patrick has denied that he is using jobs in his administration to lure pro-amendment lawmakers out of the Legislature. Neither the governor nor legislative leaders have direct control over the Sports and Entertainment Commission, but such agencies do not easily brush aside their requests. No one at the commission's office could be reached late yesterday.
Adding to the lobbying is a $750,000 media campaign launched yesterday by MassEquality that will argue that a civil rights issue, including the right to marry, should not be the subject of a popular referendum.
"We have never voted to restrict individual rights in this state, let alone sought to amend the constitution to take rights away," said Solomon. "We hope this campaign makes people aware of how unfair and dangerous this ballot measure is to everyone, not just committed gay and lesbian families."
The 30-second television spots feature three gay couples whose lives MassEquality says have been improved by the 2003 decision that legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts.