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Think Obama Had Tricky Footing on Gay Marriage? Meet Tony Verga Think Obama Had Tricky Footing on Gay Marriage? Meet Tony Verga Think Obama Had Tricky Footing on Gay Marriage? Meet Tony Verga Think Obama Had Tricky Fo...

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Politics / WHITE HOUSE

Think Obama Had Tricky Footing on Gay Marriage? Meet Tony Verga

President Barack Obama.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

photo of Jim O'Sullivan
May 13, 2012

President Obama’s history-weaving announcement of his support for gay marriage may not have happened if a 72-year-old man hadn’t slipped and fallen five years ago.

Obama’s decision was the culmination of a series of social revolutions in states across the country. Each time a state sanctioned gay marriage, it furthered the inevitability of a Democratic president’s eventual capitulation to pressure within the party.

And if former Massachusetts state Rep. Anthony Verga hadn’t lost his footing and banged his head on the marble stairs of Beacon Hill’s Golden Dome, Wednesday’s news might still be a ways off.

 

Here’s why: After a state supreme court decision in 2003 decreed that same-sex couples had the right to marry, the anti-gay-marriage forces sought ballot relief, hoping to put before Massachusetts voters a constitutional amendment banning it. Only that vote never happened, because the state legislature blocked the amendment from reaching the ballot.

The Waterloo for the  gay-marriage opponents came on June 14, 2007. Same-sex couples had been getting married for three years, but if the referendum cleared a joint constitutional convention, voters would have their say in 2008. No other state had yet ratified the practice, no major presidential contender had endorsed it. Then-Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden didn’t officially support it. The governor whose term had expired a few months earlier, Mitt Romney, was outspoken against it. Scott Brown was still a back-bench state senator, and would vote to put the matter before the electorate.

With the state’s new governor, new Senate president and powerful House speaker all in favor of preserving “marriage equality” the top-down pressure to defeat the measure was immense, and the contours of its application are to this day untold. Members switched votes with the skimpiest of public explanations, among them nine lawmakers who previously voted to send the measure to the ballot.

“I think I am going to be doing a certain number of fundraisers and district visits, and I’m happy to do that,” Gov. Deval Patrick said after the vote. “There were lots of asks. There was a lot of rich conversation, and most of what we’ve committed to and I’ve committed to is to show up and support and, indeed, celebrate the political courage that was demonstrated today.”

Pro-gay-marriage members still smirk at the recollection of what became the ultimate insider’s game, leadership’s savviest nose-counters mustered as legislators, perhaps more passionate but less schooled in cloakroom tactics and with less access to the levers of persuasion, were elbowed aside.

The petition’s supporters reckoned they lost 10 votes in the final 24 hours.

But the gay-marriage opponents had an edge. They only needed 50 votes among the 200-member legislature. Five years earlier, they had enjoyed enough support in the prevote whip count that legislative leaders had blocked a vote from occurring at all. Just a few months before, the amendment had garnered 62 votes.

And they had Tony Verga, a 12-year state House Democrat sticking firm to his position that the people, 170,000 of whom had signed the petition, had a right to vote.

Verga, a stocky and jocular native of the Gloucester fishing city depicted in the film The Perfect Storm, affirmed to National Journal this week that, had he been in the chamber that day, he would not have changed his vote.

With tension and public fixation on the debate running high the day before the vote, Verga was walking out of the storied House chamber after the afternoon close of that day’s session. He was talking with a former state representative, Robert Coughlin, who had recently joined the strongly pro-gay-marriage Patrick administration as a business-development official. With another House Democrat, Joseph Wagner, they walked toward the white marble grand staircase down to the capitol’s second floor.

And then Verga went down.

“I had my hand on the banister and my foot slipped from underneath, and I just lost grasp of the banister,” he says.

Wagner recalls, “He hit hard. I remember his head hitting the floor, bouncing up and hitting it again. It was just an awful thing to watch happen. And he lost consciousness.”

Wagner says a bagpiper was playing on the second floor, and as Verga came to, Wagner thought he might be disoriented and briefly believe he had gone to The Great Legislature in the Sky. “It struck me that he might think that he had moved on,” he says.

“I didn’t know I had hit my head. Joe Wagner told me I had hit my head because he heard a ‘whack,’ ” Verga remembers.

Fitted for a neck brace, Verga was taken from the Capitol on a stretcher to Massachusetts General Hospital. After a brief hush of concern for the well-liked lawmaker, colleagues and reporters joked that perhaps he had taken a dive to get out of the vote.

Treated and released, Verga was home the next day and did not come to work, a key anti-gay-marriage redoubt removed from the equation.

“Could [the amendment’s defeat] have happened without Verga? Hard to say,” says David Guarino, then a top aide to former state House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and now a partner at Melwood Global. “When he announced he wasn’t going to vote, I think that may have given people who were going in that direction a little more comfort.”

The gay-marriage opponents were defeated, five votes shy, many of them changed in the final hours before the vote, when they knew they were one vote down with Verga convalescing.

“We had no level of absolute certainty which way it was going to go until the end,” Guarino said. “Every vote was critically important, and it was a white-knuckle moment.”

Verga laughs when recalling the vigorous conspiracy theorizing. Could he have voted that day? “I probably could have, but I was hurting that day,” he said.

It was a watershed moment for gay marriage. After Massachusetts sustained the practice, Connecticut allowed gay marriage. Then so did Iowa, followed by Vermont, New Hampshire, New York—successive implementations that gathered momentum behind the institution within the Democratic Party, culminating on Wednesday when President Obama announced his backing. Each state made gay marriage more acceptable within the party—while drawing sustained backlash from opponents—and ratcheted up pressure on party leaders.

To be sure, anti-gay-marriage forces remain strong. Thirty states have constitutional amendments banning it. But within the party, the trend is clear. Of those most frequently mentioned for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination—Biden, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton—only Clinton has not publicly embraced gay marriage.

“I think it’s a domino effect,” says Verga, who demurred when asked about whether his misstep had been the slip heard ’round the world.

But Verga said he had undergone an evolution similar to Obama’s.

“I’m not bothered by gay marriage at all today,” he said. “But it was a different character at that time.”

 

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