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Pride in Deval Patrick

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DEVAL PATRICK
Boston Globe via Getty Images

June is the perfect time to salute political leaders who have fought for and stood by us. It is, after all, Pride Month. A decade after the nation's first marriages of gay couples in Massachusetts, it seems especially appropriate to single out Gov. Deval Patrick who is now in his final year in office and who was so essential in our efforts to defend the freedom to marry in the Bay State.

Eight years ago, this was a new governor, one who campaigned on marriage equality and who entered office when we were at our most pivotal moment. While Mary Bonauto and the team at the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) had secured marriage by winning the historic Goodridge v. Department of Public Health case, fending off a constitutional amendment in the legislature was far from a sure thing.

Our opponents needed only 25 percent of the legislature's vote to get an amendment to the ballot. Then it would be up to a popular vote. Losing in Massachusetts, the very first state in the nation with the freedom to marry, would have emboldened our opponents and delivered a profound setback. We were nine votes short in the legislature, and our pool of targets was a very conservative bunch. On most days, nine felt like 90 -- that's how daunting it seemed.

We needed this new governor, badly, to lead right off the bat.

Some of our old-school allies were urging him to play the role of an old-fashioned Boss Tweed -- give some of those recalcitrant legislators patronage jobs and get them out of there. Or, just lower the economic boom on those fence sitters, making it clear that their districts would either be rewarded or punished depending on their vote.

But that's not who Deval Patrick is, and he rejected these heavy-handed tactics. Instead, he brought his unique talents to the task -- his passion for justice, his great oratorical skills, his ability to listen, really listen, and then persuade, and his basic kindness and empathy. Patrick's approach elevated the conversation in Massachusetts, enlisted legislators to vote our way, and reinforced an approach that spoke to peoples' aspirations, to their better instincts to do right by their family, neighbors and friends.

One of Patrick's core beliefs is the concept that every person stands before their government as equals. In the face of many influential African-American clergy speaking out against marriage equality, Patrick -- the former civil rights chief at the Justice Department -- used his first Martin Luther King Day celebration as governor to make the case that the marriage struggle was a crucial part of carrying forth Dr. King's dream for America. The symbolism was powerful.

With swing lawmakers, Patrick was listener-in-chief, meeting with them one on one. Those private conversations were a game-changer because Patrick didn't use them to rattle off stale talking points. This new governor had an amazing capacity to connect, to truly understand and empathize with each individual legislator's worldview.

So, for example, to those who believed in limited government, Patrick would emphasize the case that the last thing anyone wanted was to have the government step into their private, intimate lives and tell them who they could or couldn't marry.

To others, he'd talk about "the facts on the ground." Massachusetts had, by now, three years of marriage, and no one could point to any negative consequences. There was no spike in divorce rates, no additional expense in state or city budgets, no crisis, no lawsuits. And then he'd ask these lawmakers to think through what it would mean to have a referendum fight, with out-of-state money coming in, with the pitting of neighbor against neighbor, with all those negative TV ads. But most of all -- and this was key to his success -- he listened and allowed them to struggle with the issue. He knew this wasn't simple politics. Lawmakers needed to wrestle out loud, to work it through, and get to the right place because in the end, this was a vote of personal conscience.

When we finally won that legislative vote, Patrick told me he had two reactions. First, he felt at a very deep place that what had just transpired affirmed the best of who we are, both as people and as a country. And unlike most electeds, as the Senate president announced the vote, he simply wanted to sit in his office and absorb what had just happened, take in this transcendent and historic moment, not jump in front of the cameras and give a speech. That's the kind of unique leader Deval Patrick is.

One year later, Patrick again played a crucial role in driving our cause forward. Patrick's predecessor, Mitt Romney, had dusted off and applied a law that had gone unenforced for many years, the so-called 1913 law that barred couples from marrying in Massachusetts if it were illegal for them to marry in their home states. Unearthing a law no town or city clerk ever enforced, or even remembered, had the impact Romney wanted -- it stopped committed same-sex couples living in other states from marrying in Massachusetts. The law had ugly, racist roots: It was enacted at the height of Jim Crow to ensure that interracial couples wouldn't come to the Bay State to marry.

I called the governor and asked if he'd help lead the charge to get the bill repealed. He said that while he would help, there were other top priorities he was addressing with legislative leadership. I understood but was disappointed.

That disappointment didn't last long. The next Monday, he called to report he'd made the case to the House speaker and Senate president at their weekly meeting, and they were all in. It was clear to me that, in the face of a core injustice, Patrick simply could not stand by. A couple of months later, on July 31, 2008, Patrick signed the repeal bill into law, opening up Massachusetts to any same-sex couple who wanted to come and marry.

Today, the future couldn't be brighter. There are now 19 states with the freedom to marry and lawsuits pending in every single state without it. We're within striking distance of marriage equality nationwide.

It's a wonderful place to be, but it certainly didn't happen on its own. We would not have won in Massachusetts without so many brave and courageous people, from advocates and everyday citizens, to legislators and civic leaders.

It was our movement's great fortune that, at our moment of greatest need, we were joined by a new, young governor who was ready to lead and who made marriage for same-sex couples a touchstone for the values of community and common purpose in which he so strongly believes. His graceful, determined leadership made a profound difference for the cause. And for that we owe Deval Patrick a great deal of appreciation.

Happy Pride, Governor!