Rhode Island Furthers Progressive Candidates for House and Senate
Rhode Island shows its progressive bent this fall with the candidacy of openly gay State Representative Frank Ferri and the Reverend Gene Dyszlewski, two men among a handful of candidates who are fighting for civil rights and marriage equality for the state’s LGBT community.
"My neighbors know me and my husband, Tony [Caparco], and they know that we share a common commitment to making this state a place where all families are respected and treated equally under the law," Ferri told EDGE. "I’ve heard from my constituents on this issue. They recognize that civil unions do not provide equal protection and recognition for families under the law...and they tell me they support marriage equality."
Ferri, who was elected in 2007, is proud of his time spent working on education, healthcare, business and environmental issues. The 58-year-old legislator is one of four openly gay members in the General Assembly, and is running unopposed this year.
"I worked hard to earn the trust and support of my constituents,
and I’m grateful that they’ve stuck by me over the years," Ferri said. "You learn that small victories can be great accomplishments."
This longtime advocate for same-sex marriage rights believes the issue is no longer as controversial as it had been in past years. Ferri said the change in attitudes toward same-sex marriage could be seen not just at the local and state level, but at the national level as well.
"Look at the progress made in just the last year: we went from having only two members of our Congressional Delegation in support of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to all four being on the record in favor of marriage equality," Ferri noted. "President Obama made history with his announcement of support and the Democratic National Committee is poised to adopt equality as part of its official platform. Of course there will always be those outside the mainstream who don’t support equal rights for all, but now, in Rhode Island at least, we know that a majority of folks recognize this issue is to be one of fundamental fairness."
In 2011, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a civil unions bill, which was signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chafee (I), who supports marriage equality. Last May, Chafee signed an executive order, which mandates state agencies to recognize all same-sex marriages performed out of state.
Ferri is a co-sponsor of a same-sex marriage bill brought forward by openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence), who has pledged to bring the legislation to a vote when the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2013. He also recently sponsored a bill that would reverse a restrictive religious exemption in the civil unions bill that allows conscientious objectors to marriage to deny recognition of a civil union or legal entity that recognizes same-sex marriage.
Concerned by the fact that individuals or institutions such as hospitals could deny him and his partner service or access, or restrict them from making medical decisions on their behalf because of personal religious beliefs, Ferri believes that now is the time to elect more socially progressive legislators who are solidly in support of equal rights for LGBTs. But in terms of legislation, he considers the passage of the water conservation act as his greatest win.
"What we need are policies which support our economic foundation and state infrastructures to make sure we have the jobs we need and the support services we need to have a healthy society," Ferri said. "Having fair taxation policies should be a priority. Taxes have been too slanted to benefit the wealthy. Back 50 or so years ago when our country was building roads, education, etc. income tax structure was very different. We need to focus on fair income taxes and relieve the pressure off property and use taxes."
Ferri offers some helpful advice to all the LGBT candidates running in this year’s election: "Campaign from the heart and keep things in perspective. It is not all about you, but those you want to represent. Be prepared to walk everyday and talk to as many constituents as possible. Be yourself and discuss the issues that affect all Rhode Islanders."
Pro-Gay Reverend Supports Marriage, Runs for State Senate
Spurred to enter politics after his disillusion with Rhode Island’s current political climate, the gay-supportive Reverend Gene Dyszlewski is running for State Senate District 26 in Cranston, in the Senate seat being vacated by longtime Senator Beatrice Lanzi.
"We can do better," Dyszlewski told EDGE, noting he was not pleased with legislators’ handling of issues such as poverty, homelessness and home foreclosures. Rhode Island has the second highest unemployment rate in the country.
Dyszlewski, who is married and has one daughter, has been the pastor at Riverside Congregational Church in East Providence. But he also serves as chair of the Rhode Island Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, a board member of Marriage Equality Rhode Island and a member of Clergy for Reproductive Choice.
As a staunch advocate for same-sex marriage rights, Dyszlewski has testified on the issue at the State House several times in the past decade. He believes there has been a cultural shift and that societal attitudes have changed toward homosexuality, and dismisses religious opposition to same-sex marriage, saying, "it makes no sense to me." His Democratic primary opponent, Frank Lombardi, opposes same-sex marriage.
"Legislators shouldn’t be imposing their religious beliefs on others," said Dyszlewski. "They should instead communicate about the issues with their constituents."
In keeping with his progressive front, the 65-year-old Dyszlewski wants to help create a more progressive form of taxation so small business owners will be able to prosper. Homeowners need relief on their property tax bills, said Dyszlewski.
His campaign has received a favorable response from the LGBT community. Planned Parenthood Votes, the National Organization for Women and Marriage Equality Rhode Island (MERI) have all provided endorsements.
"I am an outsider," Dyszlewski said. "I think differently, and I really want to get in there and make a difference."