fierce advocates

Ted Kennedy Made Gays Fight for Their Rights Before He Helped. Is Obama Following Suit?


Sen. Ted Kennedy was a very powerful man. It sort of comes along with having a famous last name, but it helps if you’re an elected senator with more than four decades of job experience. His influence was regularly sought after, because a nod from Teddy (or at least a phone call) just got things done. So having him on our side during Massachusetts’ 2007 battle to kill a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was, undoubtedly, pivotal. Allow us some heavy lifting from Marc Solomon, former MassEquality political director and currently Equality California’s marriage director, who recalls of his hero:

Our cause was lining up the votes to defeat an anti-gay constitutional amendment that would strip same-sex couples of the right to marry. A final vote was scheduled for July 14, 2007. Our opponents needed the votes of only 25 percent of the legislature to advance a citizen-led amendment to the ballot. We had lined up two-thirds of the legislature through fieldwork, lobbying, media, literally everything we could think of. But getting those last 15 legislators-those conservative Democrats from working class Massachusetts communities and a few libertarian-leaning Republicans-was very tough. We needed all hands on deck to keep a Massachusetts version of Proposition 8 off the ballot. We needed Ted Kennedy.

“Could you get me a list of your targets?” one of Kennedy’s key staffers finally asked me. “Don’t tell anyone I’m asking you for this,” he said. He meant it, and I didn’t.

A few days later, as I was doing my rounds in the State House, a bewildered conservative legislator stopped me. “You’ll never guess who left me a message about gay marriage,” he said. “Ted Kennedy.” And then I started to hear similar refrains again and again. We’d get word that he’d spoken to the Governor, the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, the chair of the Democratic Party, asking for updates, strategizing, figuring out exactly what he could do and how he could be most helpful.

In the end, on that July 14, we won. We won what many thought was an impossible victory, by a vote of 151 – 45, keeping our opponents just below the 25 percent threshold. We shocked our opponents. They were sure they had the votes. Just the kind of come-from-behind, unexpected victory for the little guy that Kennedy relished so much.

Kennedy’s influence is certainly not the surprise. He was an operator, an advocate, and above all, a skilled politician. That he could lubricate fellow lawmakers to see his side of things wasn’t even an open secret; it was no secret at all. But it was Kennedy’s M.O. to git ‘er done that is entirely timely. Continues Solomon:

But like a brilliant conductor or a great athlete, Ted Kennedy had perfect timing. He knew exactly when to take an issue on, and precisely how to do it. When it was approaching that time, his staff would talk to him, slip him a memo. But even then, it was Ted Kennedy himself who knew when it was really time. We advocates could get impatient.

But we knew he was right, that it was our job to push the boulder as far up the hill as we could. And that he’d take it on at just the right time, when our collective strength wasn’t great enough to finish the job. He’d think about the issue, roll it over in his mind for a few days. Call confidantes. Ask for advice. Bounce ideas off of them.

And then he’d go to work, usually quietly. Sometimes he’d make a critical call that you would only find out about months later. Other times you’d hear about his work right away, but rarely from him or his staff, almost always from those to whom he spoke.

Might this be the strategy of a certain White House resident? Who we’ll come to thank later? After all, he’s been having all those secret talks with a certain Gay Inc. organization … who knows what’s being uttered under his breath.