EAST PROVIDENCE — As a first-term lawmaker on Smith Hill, recently-installed State Senator William Conley (D, Dist-18) figured he, like any other newcomer to the General Assembly, would retain a certain amount of anonymity as he learned the ropes during his initial two-year term.
But one very high profile issue and an appointment to the committee from which legislation regarding it will emanate changed all that.
Mr. Conley was put directly in the throws of the same-sex marriage debate when Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed seated Mr. Conley, a lawyer, on the upper chamber’s Judiciary Committee, where one of the first orders of business is to determine if a bill regarding the issue reaches the Senate floor.
“It was completely unexpected. I was very surprised by the amount of focus and attention that it brought,” Mr. Conley said of the notoriety he’s received since the appointment two weeks ago.
“I literally did not know what committees I would be on until the senate president made the appointments. I wanted to be on Judiciary, but I didn’t know if it would happen or not,” he added.
Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D, Dist-15, Pawtucket) submitted a version of the same-sex marriage bill in the early days of the session. The House Judiciary Committee has already held hearings on the bill and was scheduled to vote on the measure this week. It was expected to pass, considering 42 of 75 House members co-signed its bill. But in the Senate, only 11 of 38 members co-sponsored its version, Mr. Conley not being one of them.
Despite that fact and other claims by proponents of the bill, who believe he will vote against it, Mr. Conley said he has yet to make up his mind.
“No, I have not decided,” he responded to a direct question about his position on same-sex marriage. “It’s a very important decision, I know, for many people in Rhode Island. I have not yet made up my mind. I believe it’s very important for the process to make sure all sides on the issue have a full and fair opportunity to be heard.”
A practicing Catholic, Mr. Conley said he’s well aware of the church’s stance on the issue, having heard the denunciations of Bishop Thomas Tobin. He insisted, however, he will make his decision based on the case presented to him in committee.
“My faith does inform a lot of the decisions I make in life,” Mr. Conley explained. “Catholic Social Doctrine, especially, has been a guide to me in public service.”
Again, though, Mr. Conley said the outside forces ultimately won’t impact his decision on the issue, including the opinion of his former colleague on the East Providence City Council, Katie Kleyla, who recently told the Providence Journal she believed he would oppose same-sex marriage.
“That’s her opinion,” Mr. Conley said. “I’ll leave it at that.”
He added, “Comments like that will be of little to no consequence to me and the decision I make. I know what the dictates of my conscience are at this point.”