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Primary colored
Nobody wants a single-issue race, but the slim anti-gay-marriage margin in the legislature means flipping just one seat could keep the amendment to ban same-sex marriage off the 2006 ballot

IN MANY WAYS, the primary race for 34th Middlesex District state representative can be described as typical. The 34th comprises neighborhoods in West Somerville and South Medford, and the build-up to the September 14 primary election there features the clash of young versus old, the New District versus the Old District, the progressive versus the conservative, the agent of change versus the maintainer of the status quo.

Yet political newcomer Carl Sciortino’s challenge of incumbent representative Vincent Ciampa has emerged as anything but predictable on at least one front — the battle over gay marriage in Massachusetts.

Same-sex marriage, which became legal here on May 17, has not dominated political discourse in the 34th Middlesex; like voters across the state, most Somerville and Medford residents care more about education, health care, and the economy than they do about the ongoing same-sex-marriage debate on Beacon Hill. But the Sciortino-Ciampa race has generated considerable buzz among activists pushing to maintain civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples in the Bay State.

The pro-gay-marriage forces have a higher stake in this year’s election season than in any before. Hanging in the balance is the proposed state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which cannot appear on the 2006 ballot unless it receives approval from state lawmakers during the 2005 legislative session. And given the slim 105-to-92 margin by which anti-gay-marriage legislators prevailed at the state’s constitutional convention (ConCon) this past spring, flipping even one House seat could make all the difference in the outcome.

Gay-marriage activists see a great opportunity in Sciortino, a young, openly gay candidate who has pledged to "oppose any effort to write discrimination into the state constitution." His position stands in stark contrast to that of Ciampa, a conservative Democrat who has held the House seat for 16 years. During the ConCon, the incumbent pol backed various versions of the amendment that would bar same-sex couples from civil marriage. This, despite the fact that his district boasts a significant gay population, particularly in Somerville. Indeed, Ciampa was one of only two legislators in the Somerville-Medford delegation to vote against gay marriage.

Since Sciortino announced his candidacy back in March, gay-marriage supporters have rallied behind him. Gay-rights organizations such as the Freedom To Marry Coalition, MassEquality, and the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus have plugged members into the campaign, circulated endorsements, and hosted fundraisers that have netted Sciortino, a first-time challenger, thousands more than he would have received otherwise. Supporters living in the district have also flocked to his campaign, calling potential voters, stuffing envelopes, and spreading the word about the young, energetic candidate. Even folks from outside the district, from places such as Newton, Boston, and Cambridge, have done their best to lend Sciortino a hand.

Today, with less than a week left before the primaries, the Sciortino-Ciampa contest remains one of the hottest House races around. Observes Dan Cohen, of the progressive-leaning Citizens for Participation in Political Action, which has endorsed Sciortino, "This is a top-priority race for many of us who care about this issue. We view it as one of the most important, most winnable primary races in the state."

Sciortino, whose opponent likes to label him a "one-issue candidate," is careful not to portray himself as a crusader for same-sex-marriage rights. Ask him the reasons for his fledgling run for political office, and he ticks off a list of standard concerns — from municipal and school aid, health care, and human services to corporate welfare. Topping his platform, he says, is the need to improve funding for Somerville and Medford public schools — which he believes his opponent has failed to do. He criticizes Ciampa as a career politician, a member of the House leadership who cares more about his power than about his people. Ultimately, Sciortino charges, Ciampa has grown "out of touch" with the needs and desires of his constituents.

"I’ve sensed a lot of frustration with Ciampa," Sciortino says as he makes his way down Governor Winthrop Street during a door-knocking excursion through Somerville’s Ten Hills neighborhood. And it certainly seems to be an apt observation. As Sciortino walks door to door delivering his three-minute spiel — "Hi. I’m Carl Sciortino. I’m running in the primary to fight for better health care, more affordable housing, and good schools" — he is greeted by general disdain for his opponent. One middle-aged man interrupts Sciortino in mid pitch and pledges his support on the spot: "I’m all for your platform. I’m so sick of these incumbent politicians." Another resident, an elderly woman with a wobbling gait, shouts through the screen of her front door, "Vinnie has been here too long! If you can boot him out, I say go for it."

Around the district, Sciortino has managed to fire up many voters by painting himself as the anti-Ciampa — not by touting his position as the champion for civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples. Still, it’s easy to see why pro-gay-marriage forces have pinned their hopes on him. The 26-year-old health-care manager oversees HIV/AIDS programs at Fenway Community Health Center. A native of Milford, Connecticut, he moved to Somerville in 1996 to attend Tufts University, where he studied biology. Over the past eight years, he has plunged into political activism, founding the Progressive Democrats of Somerville and heading up OutSomerville, the city’s gay-rights group. As far as first-time candidates go, Sciortino seems a dream: he is informed, eager to work, and idealistic about government.

More important, Sciortino, unlike some politicians, does not shy away from the contentious issue of gay marriage. Instead, he trumpets his belief in "equal rights for all families" in his campaign literature. And he acknowledges that his opponent’s handling of the matter first inspired him to run. In the months leading up to the ConCon, Sciortino voiced his support for same-sex-marriage rights in e-mails and phone calls to Representative Ciampa, among other legislators. Eventually, he visited Ciampa at the State House, he says, where he spent an hour imploring the rep not to amend the state constitution to bar same-sex couples from civil marriage. Ciampa was not swayed, however. Says Sciortino, "I was disappointed that a representative didn’t see this issue as impacting people in his own district."

Frustrated, Sciortino recalled his previous attempts to lobby Ciampa on a host of other matters, including campaign-finance reform and state-funded social services. He had received a similar reaction, so he mounted his challenge. "Gay marriage," he explains, "was really the last straw for me. I thought, ‘This district deserves an alternative. It deserves better.’"

When you talk with gay residents active in the Sciortino campaign, you hear, not surprisingly, a similar sentiment. Dorene Shulman, 38, a Somerville resident who lives with her partner and two young children, has become a regular volunteer for Sciortino. She and her partner spent two fruitless years lobbying Ciampa on the issue of civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples. They described the personal hardships caused by their inability to marry; they hashed out the legal arguments. Last February, Shulman’s partner visited Ciampa a final time. But when Ciampa revealed that he was planning to vote for the proposed amendment, Shulman recalls, "My partner knew that was it. As soon as she came home, she looked at me and said, ‘Who are we getting to run against this man?’"

Then there’s Deb Silva. Although she and her partner moved to Medford two years ago, Ciampa "hadn’t come up on my radar screen at all," Silva says. Not until last spring’s ConCon, when Silva began sending e-mails and making phone calls to Ciampa’s office. The legislator, she says, never bothered to respond. But then, in March, in the midst of the ConCon, she ran into Ciampa in Medford. When she approached him, she says, "I came right out and said I was disappointed by his vote." But Ciampa defended his position. So, "I told Ciampa that day, ‘I will do everything I can to defeat you in every election from here on out.’"

Silva has stayed true to her word. Since she learned about Sciortino, she has attended fundraisers, hosted house parties, and distributed literature for his campaign. "Gay marriage is about 90 percent of the reason why I got involved," Silva admits. As far as she’s concerned, "Ciampa has let down the gay community. He hasn’t listened to his district at all."

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Issue Date: September 10 - 16, 2004
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