Business Leaders Enter RI Gay Marriage Debate

By David Klepper


The debate over gay marriage in Rhode Island is moving from the Statehouse to the boardroom as supporters argue the state is at an economic disadvantage with its five New England neighbors, which already allow same-sex nuptials.

A coalition of 60 business leaders, including former Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld, this week endorsed same-sex marriage legislation pending in the General Assembly, saying it would attract workers and employers that might otherwise head to Connecticut, Massachusetts or elsewhere. Executives from companies including Deepwater Wind, Betaspring, The Providence Journal and CVS Caremark also signed on to the coalition.

"This is about competitiveness and creating an economic climate that allows Rhode Island to attract the best and brightest talent and employers," Hassenfeld said in a statement. Hassenfeld, who was chief executive at the Pawtucket-based toymaker from 1989 to 2003, was out of the country Thursday and could not be reached. "To be competitive, a state must create an equitable, fair and respectful environment for all of its citizens. From a business point of view, passing marriage equality just makes good sense."

Opponents of gay marriage, however, have said that they believe most Rhode Islanders oppose gay marriage and that it would do little to help the state's economy.

Chris Plante, director of the state chapter of the National Organization for Marriage, called the economic argument for gay marriage "a complete lie." He said that any impact on the state's economy will be negligible and that states prohibiting gay marriage have not seen any exodus of workers or companies to states that allow it.

"I won't deny that same-sex couples will buy rings and flowers and will spend money here," Plante said. "But the idea of an economic boon is a fallacy."

The House passed gay marriage legislation last month, but the Senate has not yet taken up the bill.

Some business groups remain on the sidelines of the debate. The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce board has considered taking a stance on the issue but so far has not voted, though chamber President Laurie White said she plans to individually join the business coalition supporting the legislation. The chamber's chairman, Jon Duffy, is already a member.

The Newport County Chamber board voted last week in favor of a resolution stating that gay marriage would be a boon to the local wedding and hospitality industry. But the resolution did not endorse the legislation or gay marriage in general.

Gay marriage supporters said they hope the support of business leaders will show the legislation has implications for the entire state - not just gay and lesbian couples.

Sally Lapides, president of Residential Properties Ltd., a Providence-based real estate company, said she believes companies and couples - straight and same-sex - look at a state's stance on gay marriage as one factor among many when deciding whether to locate in a particular state.

"In my business, we take people around to see houses, and if they're offered a job at Yale, Brown or Harvard, and they can live in a state that accepts their relationship, why would they take a job here?" she said. "It's kind of an embarrassment to look at the map of where marriage equality exists and see this little state sticking out."

It's an argument echoed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who on Thursday participated in a forum at New York University on the economic implications of same-sex marriage. Chafee, an independent, supports the legislation.

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