Advocates are also counting on a certain amount of support from the governor’s office come crunch time. Chafee made high-profile mention of gay marriage in his inaugural address and supporters will press for continued use of the bully pulpit.

In the Senate chambers, meanwhile, sponsors are planning to lobby their colleagues with the sort of personal stories that can be powerful in a small, clubby institution.

The state’s first openly gay senator, Donna Nesselbush, will be a prominent voice in this regard. But she will not be alone. “As a mother of a gay man, and as the aunt of a gay nephew who actually died of AIDS,” says State Senator Rhoda Perry, a Providence Democrat, “I have a story.”

Both Nesselbush and Perry serve on the closely divided Senate Judiciary Committee, which may prove the most crucial battleground in Rhode Island’s same-sex marriage fight.

Indeed, the fear among advocates is that Paiva Weed will simply bottle up the bill in the committee, chaired by gay nuptials opponent Michael McCaffrey.

Forcing a vote on that panel — and, subsequently, on the Senate floor — will depend, in part, on advocates’ ability to demonstrate that they have a majority in both venues. And that will be a challenge.

Two critical swing votes on the Judiciary Committee — Senators Paul Jabour of Providence and William Walaska of Warwick — tell the Phoenix they support civil unions over same-sex marriage.

And they seem to believe they have the popular opinion on their side; “Right now,” Walaska says, “my constituents are telling me — from the phone calls, the letters — that they like things the way they are.”

But advocates say they are confident they can win the key votes. They just need to get the bill to the Senate, they say; just need to engage a group of pols who have never really looked at the question head-on.

“That middle group — the ‘lean yes,’ ‘lean no’ group — can certainly move to ‘yeses,’ ” says Kathy Kushnir, executive director of MERI.


The advocates’ most potent argument may sound something like this: we’re not going away.

A certain segment of the legislature would prefer the issue simply disappear.

But burying the bill, supporters argue, will just mean continued political pain next year. And not just another round of heart-wrenching, headline-grabbing hearings and difficult votes.

No, the pain could be quite a bit sharper than most legislators realize.

The gay rights lobby is wealthy, national in reach — and increasingly sophisticated when it comes to electoral politics.

For years, gay donors concentrated their resources on glamorous, national campaigns, hoping for a savior that never came; Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise was a bitter disappointment for many.

But in recent years, under the leadership of publicity-shy Colorado technology magnate Tim Gill, wealthy gay activists have begun to pour their cash into the sort of low-cost state races that are tipping the balance on same-sex marriage and other key gay rights issues.

In the 2006 elections, Gill’s circle of donors knocked off 50 of the 70 state legislators his organization targeted around the country.

And last year, the Gill Action Fund perfected the art in New York, where it spent $790,000 to defeat three incumbent state senators and a Republican candidate who opposed same-sex marriage.

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