With a showdown over same-sex marriage looming this week, all eyes at the State House are focused on House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, a strong supporter of gay rights whose ability to sway votes in his chamber could determine the fate of a proposed constitutional ban.
On the eve of Thursday's Constitutional Convention, advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage say that the only hope of defeating the proposed ban lies in the House, where DiMasi will try to use his position -- and the political skills honed during nearly three decades of legislative experience -- to persuade enough legislators to abandon their support for the measure.
In January, when the constitutional amendment won its first round of approval, the bulk of support came from the House, where 55 of 160 members voted in favor of the measure, compared with just seven of the state's 40 senators. To win a spot on the ballot in November 2008, the amendment must be approved by 50 lawmakers -- or one-quarter of the Legislature's 200 members -- in two consecutive sessions.
"This is really in the speaker's hands," said Senate minority leader Richard R. Tisei, a Republican from Wakefield who opposes the proposed ban. "He has to use his powers. How well he does that will determine whether the amendment will get the 50 votes it needs."
By almost every tally, the margin in favor of the amendment has narrowed -- through retirements and conversions -- to three or four votes since January, according to senior legislative sources. None of those leading the fight against the amendment, including DiMasi, will reveal details about their tally sheets.
Sitting in his office last week, DiMasi acknowledged feeling the pressure. The undertaking, he said, is one of the most difficult a legislative leader can face: to persuade a handful of state representatives to switch their votes on an issue that stirs considerable passion and poses potential political peril.
"There's a lot of soul-searching going on among the people we're speaking to," DiMasi said. "There are some who are legitimately examining their consciences."
DiMasi said that he will not know whether he has the votes to defeat the proposed ban until just before the convention meets. He said that if he is not sure that he has the votes, legislative leaders are prepared to put off the decision until later in the session.
Massachusetts became the first and only state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003, following a landmark decision by the state's highest court. The constitutional amendment, which is the result of a citizen petition signed by more than 100,000 voters, would define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
As the debate continues to unfold, much is at stake for DiMasi. With a governor and a Senate president both trying to feel their way in new positions as State House powerbrokers, he has stepped up in his leadership role on Beacon Hill in recent months.
A victory for him Thursday would greatly enhance that image. But a failure to kill the proposed ban would be a serious blow to his standing, particularly if he cannot move any of the approximately dozen lawmakers who have been targeted as possible candidates to switch their votes, many of whom are members of his leadership team.
Few of those who have been targeted would discuss their decision on the record or confirm that they are considering changing their positions. But according to legislative sources, it is clear that at least a dozen lawmakers are open to DiMasi's lobbying. One, state Representative Paul J. Donato, a Medford Democrat and a close DiMasi ally and friend, offered a hint that the lobbying, as well as changing demographics and public attitudes, may be working in favor of same-sex marriage advocates.
"It is a very tough issue for me," said Donato, who voted in the last session to place the amendment on the ballot. He said he has always opposed same-sex marriage but admits he is now listening to the pro-marriage advocates in his district, a former enclave of social conservatives that is becoming increasingly more liberal.
Donato insisted that his decision to listen to and meet with same-sex marriage advocates should not be interpreted as a sign that he is reconsidering his vote.
But his comments signaled that he is keeping the door ajar.
"I am listening to members of the gay and lesbian community in my district this weekend and I will make a heart rending decision," he said.
Complicating the decision for Donato was the emergence last week of a candidate who supports same-sex marriage who said he would challenge Donato in the Democratic primary next year and focus on the lawmaker's support for the proposed ban.
If Donato were to switch his vote, he could appear to be bending to political pressure, giving himself an image that most political leaders seek to avoid.
"Donato has been very thoughtful and fair and is clearly listening to people. However, we fear he will continue to vote more conservatively than he needs to on this issue," said Arline Isaacson, co chairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
She said the caucus would feel obligated to support him in his reelection bid if he were to vote against the marriage ban.
DiMasi, Governor Deval Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and Democratic political leaders are also appealing to the legislators' political self-interest.
They argue that a 2008 campaign over a ban on same-sex marriage in the one state where it is legal would attract national attention, create chaos locally, drain resources from the party's national efforts, and draw out potential opponents in the next legislative election.
Supporters of the proposed amendment see the effort as one of raw politics, not conscience.
Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said he is convinced DiMasi, Patrick, and Murray are mounting unprecedented pressure on targeted lawmakers who could potentially switch their votes. He cited reports of job offers to legislators and horse-trading for votes, but said he knew of no details.
"I have unequivocal corroboration that the Legislature has never seen pressure like this applied," Mineau said. "This is unprecedented."
But Mineau said his coalition -- which collected 170,000 signatures for the marriage ban petition and provided the amendment enough votes in the 200-member Legislature to clear its initial hurdle in the last session -- is not bending.
"All indications to us is that they are holding strong. We have no indication that anyone has changed their vote," he said last week. "But we are a week out and nothing is certain on Beacon Hill."