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Mass. Senate Leader Looks to Balance Sides in Gay Marriage Debate

When his fellow lawmakers elected Robert Travaglini (search) president of the Massachusetts Senate last year, one of the Boston Democrat's strengths they pointed to was his history as a consensus builder.

Those skills will be sorely tested Wednesday when Travaglini takes gavel in hand as the presiding officer of a constitutional convention — a joint meeting of the state House and Senate — that could help decide the fate of gay marriage in Massachusetts.

It will be Travaglini's unenviable task to keep emotions in check and let all members of the House and Senate have their say on one of the most polarizing issues to crop up in years: a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

Those who have seen Travaglini in action say he's up to the task.

"Bob Travaglini is a guy who listens and listens well. He's not one to say, 'My will or be damned,"' said Warren Tolman, a former state senator who served with Travaglini. "He's shown an ability to work with people from all sides of the political spectrum."

The politician from the city's East Boston neighborhood is already feeling the heat at the center of a storm over the definition of marriage, a fight that gained momentum after last week's Supreme Judicial Court ruling that paved the way for gay marriage.

Reporters have camped out in front of his Statehouse office looking for the latest word about how he will handle the fray. On Monday, a group of students opposed to gay marriage waited in the hall outside his door hoping to talk.

In response, Travaglini — whose job as Senate president has been compared to the legislative equivalent of herding cats — has kept his profile low and his words measured.

"It is my hope that the debate on this intensely personal issue will be dignified and orderly," he said in a written statement Friday. "As the presiding officer, I will afford everyone an opportunity to be heard and there will be a vote on the marriage issue."

By allowing a vote, Travaglini is departing from the path taken by his predecessor, former Senate President Thomas Birmingham (search), a gay rights supporter. When faced with a similar question in 2002, Birmingham allowed lawmakers to vote to adjourn the constitutional convention rather than take a vote on the issue, prompting jeers from anti-gay marriage activists and applause from gay rights advocates.

Birmingham says he doesn't regret the decision, but would probably allow a vote now if he were still Senate president, citing both the Supreme Judicial Court opinion and what he said is a much more narrowly worded marriage amendment to the state constitution.

An Associated Press survey of Massachusetts lawmakers conducted after the landmark court ruling showed just how deeply divided the Legislature is over gay marriage.

Of the 148 House and Senate lawmakers who responded, 63 said they would oppose the constitutional amendment, while 70 said they could support it. An additional 12 said they were undecided, and three said they had no comment. Fifty-one legislators did not respond; one seat is currently vacant.

The proposed amendment needs 101 votes from the House-Senate gathering in order to go on to the next step — a second vote by the new Legislature that will convene in January 2005. If it receives at least 101 votes a second time, it would go on the ballot in November 2006, giving voters the final say.

Travaglini hasn't become as much of a lightning rod as Birmingham, even though the Senate has typically taken more liberal positions than the House on social issues like gay rights.

He has kept his own thoughts on the issue of the gay marriage amendment more closely guarded, though he has indicated in the past that he opposes gay marriage while supporting civil unions.

Whatever happens Wednesday, Travaglini can be assured the issue is unlikely to fade away.

By mid-May, gay couples will be allowed to obtain marriage licenses in Massachusetts unless lawmakers can find a way to block the court ruling, which found it unconstitutional for the state to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.