Lobbying for votes - Marriage equality proponents set their sights on Senator Fred Berry
by Laura Kiritsy
Bay Windows
Thursday, February 17, 2005
Page 3

Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry may have gotten a pass for his vote in favor of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage last year, but he might not get off so easily the next time around.

A group of about 10 constituents - gay and straight - from the Peabody Democrat's district, which also includes Beverly, Danvers, Salem, and Topsfield, held a meeting Feb. 2 to discuss ways in which they might persuade Berry, a longtime legislative ally of the GLBT community, to change his mind on the amendment. Should the amendment, which would overturn the Goodridge decision and create civil unions, pass the legislature again this year, it will be put to voters in 2006.

Berry's vote in favor of the amendment shocked and disappointed constituents and longtime gay rights advocates familiar with the senator and his record. When describing Berry, even colleagues and constituents who oppose his position on the amendment easily characterize him as compassionate, caring, thoughtful and fair. Berry, who has cerebral palsy, has made human rights a centerpiece of his 22-year legislative career. He has spearheaded initiatives to protect and expand the rights of disabled people, to provide health care access to people with mental illness, and to secure funding for child abuse prevention programs. As Senate chair of the Housing and Urban Development Committee Berry played a pivotal role in increasing affordable housing and expanding protections against housing discrimination. And he has always been a strong supporter of gay rights.

"Historically, Fred Berry had an excellent record of support for the gay and lesbian community," observed Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a longtime lobbyist. "He took strong stands and courageous stands against discrimination 20 years ago when it was a much more difficult position to hold. And he - up until last year - voted consistently with the gay and lesbian community."

Berry was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, said Vic Digravio, his chief of staff. DiGravio also declined to answer questions about Berry's position on the amendment.

Observers can only conclude that Berry's vote had more to do with politics than his personal feelings. "Fred is an extraordinarily loyal human being and his loyalty is to the Senate President Bob Travaglini," says former legislator Cheryl Jacques, who served in the Senate with Berry from 1992 until her departure in 2002. "Travaglini made it clear during the ConCon that he wanted people to vote in favor of the so-called compromise and Fred, being his majority leader, his right hand man, his best friend, I'm sure that was a loyalty vote and nothing more, nothing less." Other historically gay-friendly members of the leadership team, such as Sen. Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, likely did the same thing, Jacques points out. "I think that if President Travaglini releases all senators from this next vote and truly says, 'Do what you want,' I think Senator Berry will cast a different vote."

Jacques, who held a leadership position under former Senate President Tom Birmingham, says that "unless there is a really, really pressing reason to not vote with your president, then you try to support your president's position." But she's not so quick to let senators who followed the leader off the hook: While their votes were not surprising, Jacques says, "I'm disappointed that Senator Berry and Senator Murray didn't find equality for their gay and lesbian constituents a pressing enough reason to vote in contrast to how the Senate President was voting." Indeed, some Senate leaders, such as Assistant Majority Leader Marian Walsh, D-West Roxbury, the third ranking Senate leader, and Senate President Pro Tempore Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, did exactly that.

However disappointed they might have been with his vote, constituents looking to swing Berry's vote against the amendment don't appear to be harboring grudges. Quite the contrary. While there is frustration with Berry, most of the constituents trying to reach out to him do not believe that his vote for the amendment reflected his true beliefs on the issue. As Cathy Burack, the Beverly resident who facilitated the recent meeting, says, "hope springs eternal."

"I'd like to think somebody with an overall record like he has is someone that you can go back to and say, 'Okay, let's try this again a second time Maybe you didn't hear us the first time around. Let's try again,'" she explains. "In essence the people that ... attended the meeting and outside of that meeting [who] are trying to talk with him are doing that because of his longstanding support of a whole bunch of other things." (Disclosure: Burack is the partner of Bay Windows photographer Marilyn Humphries.)

Berry himself has sent signals he may be willing to reconsider his position. After making several requests, Salem resident Bob Murch met with Berry personally last April, shortly after Berry cast his vote in favor of the amendment. Murch says that Berry indicated his vote was based partly on a desire to end the debate before it turned ugly and was done with the knowledge that regardless of what happened at the ConCon, same-sex couples would begin marrying on May 17, a fact that Berry believed would have a positive impact on the second round of debate on the issue. Berry did not explicitly say he would change his vote, Murch says, but the senator asked for his trust. While that prompted ironic laughter from both of them, Murch is convinced that Berry has already changed his mind. "I believe he's going to show us how he really feels in the next vote," says Murch. "I absolutely feel that he's going to vote against any amendment."

The 30-year-old Murch and Gary Halteman, 31, his partner of 10 years, were married on the steps of Salem City Hall on the morning of May 17. In July, they hosted a wedding reception for 125 friends and family members at Jimmy's Allenhurst, a Danvers function hall. Among the many gifts the couple received that day was a pair of crystal beer mugs sent by Berry and his wife, Gayle. While some have suggested the gift was a merely a polite token gesture of respect, Murch sees a different symbol.

"Taking the time, him and his wife, to pick out a gift and having it sent over for something that you don't believe should have happened seems a far stretch," Murch says.

But Murch takes nothing for granted. The notion that a constitutional amendment could do away with equal marriage rights has propelled him into a part-time career as an activist. He also attended the Feb. 2 meeting and his meeting with Berry inspired his Web site (www.civilmarriagecivilright.com), which aims to keep the focus of the debate where he believes it should be - on same-sex couples. Murch is also working to enlist other elected officials who support equal marriage rights to lobby Berry on the issue. To that end, he has spoken with the members of the Salem City Council and Mayor Stanley Usovicz.

Usovicz firmly supports the Goodridge decision. "I think everybody should," he says. After speaking with Murch, Usovicz says he plans to schedule a time to speak with Berry by phone soon. "Simply making a call and asking him to consider a position is not an unusual thing," he says.

North Shore Equality, an offshoot of MassEquality, the grassroots organization leading efforts to defeat the amendment in the legislature is also gearing up to lobby the senator on the issue. Salem resident and North Shore Equality member Margo deSimon says she plans to be involved in those efforts. While she expresses hope that the implementation of Goodridge and the political shifts that have occurred in the legislature over the past year will smooth the way for Berry to change his mind, she's not convinced that he won't cave in to political expedience when the constitutional convention reconvenes.

"I won't be entirely surprised because a lot of what happens up there happens behind doors and during conversations that we're not aware of," said deSimon. "And you know it will be disappointing but I have to say I wouldn't be entirely surprised."

Even Murch's mostly unflagging optimism has its limits, and there is a hint of resignation in his voice as he contemplates the prospect of Berry voting for the amendment a second time. "It would just be a letdown because I do think I've put my trust in him," he says. "But ultimately these people have to do what they think is right. And these are the reasons you vote or not vote for people. I would like to think that a lot of people would look at these votes." Noting that Berry ran unopposed in the last election, Murch adds, "his next election will be really hard if he doesn't change his vote."

Laura Kiritsy is the Associate Editor at Bay Windows. Her e-mail address is lkiritsy@baywindows.com.

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