Hillary Goodridge, left, reads from a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt… (Angela Rowlings / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Ten months into his term as Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney was abruptly confronted with an emotionally charged issue: The state's highest court ruled that gays had the legal right to marry, thrusting the state into the forefront of the same-sex marriage debate.
Romney, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, faced one of the biggest challenges of his four years in office. His response would alienate constituencies on both sides and contribute to criticisms that he shifted positions for political gain, a charge renewed in his two bids for the White House. At minimum, Romney's handling of the gay marriage ruling — laid out in interviews with key players and state documents — provides a window into his decision-making style and political tactics.
Romney had vowed while running in Massachusetts to defend and expand the rights of gays and lesbians, although he opposed same-sex marriage and civil unions. When the court ruled, he initially promised to follow its decision, while also seeking a state constitutional amendment to overturn it.
But soon he devoted his attention to trying to block the ruling. Among his moves: resurrecting a 90-year-old state law, aimed in part at preventing interracial marriage, to keep same-sex couples from flocking to Massachusetts for weddings.
The battle served to boost his national profile and conservative credentials in the years leading to his first presidential run in 2008.
To supporters, he emerged as a steadfast defender of traditional marriage. But critics and some onetime allies believe that Romney's national ambitions — and a resulting need to tack to the right — eventually drove the way he dealt with Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health.
"He needed issues that would help him pivot," said Rich Tafel, who founded the national gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans and advised Romney how to secure the state chapter's endorsement in his unsuccessful 1994 Senate bid.
Tafel watched with dismay as Romney used his opposition to the Goodridge ruling to appeal to conservative groups around the country. "I think he truly does oppose gay marriage, but the speed with which he jumped on and rode that issue struck me as political," he said.
Aides to Romney reject that judgment, saying that as governor he was motivated solely by his belief that marriage should remain between a man and a woman, and that the court was overstepping its bounds.
"His position remained constant from the very day that the decision was issued," said senior advisor Peter Flaherty, who was Romney's deputy chief of staff and helped craft the administration's response. "To say that it had to do with anything other than his performing his duties as governor of Massachusetts in compliance with the law and consistent with his executive role is baseless."
When it comes to gay marriage, Flaherty added, "I have never seen a change in tone, a change in approach, a change in purpose."
Romney sought office twice in Massachusetts — challenging Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1994 and running for governor in 2002. Both times, he paired his opposition to gay marriage and civil unions with strong support for other gay rights. During the race against Kennedy, he told the Log Cabin Republicans that he would "provide more effective leadership than my opponent." He promised to co-sponsor a federal nondiscrimination act and support efforts to allow gays and lesbians to serve "openly and honestly" in the military.
"If we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern," he wrote in an October 1994 letter. "My opponent cannot do this. I can and will."
In his 2002 campaign for governor, Romney declined to back a proposed state constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage because, he said, it would also have outlawed domestic partnership benefits. At one point, after his Democratic opponent said she would sign a bill legalizing gay marriage, Romney promised to make domestic partner benefits a "hallmark of my leadership as governor," the Boston Globe reported at the time.
Then came the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in November 2003 that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry. In its 4-3 decision, the court gave the Legislature 180 days "to take such action as it may deem appropriate."
Opponents of same-sex marriage — citing a quirk in the state's colonial-era Constitution that gave the governor authority over matters related to marriage — argued that the court's decision was not binding and urged Romney to ignore it.
But Romney did not want to trigger a constitutional crisis — seeking, his advisor Flaherty said, to be "respectful of the law and respectful of people at the same time." Initially, he struck a balanced tone with his two-track move to find a legislative solution that would satisfy the court while corralling support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.