Published in Pawtucket Times, September 27, 2014
Three City residents, Joan Crawley, former Director of the Pawtucket Leon Mathieu Senior Center, the late Kathleen Magill, a former Pawtucket City Councilor, and Miriam R. Plitt, President of the City’s Commission on Arts & Culture, will be inducted next month into the Pawtucket Hall of Fame. Philanthropist Elizabeth Higginson Weeden is this year’s historical inductee. All have made a significant impact on the City of Pawtucket.
Pawtucket dignitaries will induct this year’s Class of 2014 into the City’s most venerable institution, the Pawtucket Hall of Fame, at the upcoming 23rd annual dinner and induction ceremony. The Pawtucket Hall of Fame was founded in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the City of Pawtucket.
Interestingly, this year there will be a new twist in the Hall of Fame in that the induction committee has created a new category of inductee: the Pawtucket Person of the Year! “We’re excited about our new “Person of the Year” Award being given this year,” says Chair Ken McGill, noting that this prestigious accolade honors a person who has made a unique and superlative accomplishment that significantly benefits the entire City.
“Senator Donna Nesselbush will receive the distinct honor of being the first person ever to receive this recognition,” said McGill, who also serves as Pawtucket’s Registrar in the Board of Canvassers. McGill added, the Pawtucket Senator successfully advocated for civil rights for all Rhode Islanders when she championed the Senate Marriage Equality bill. This historic legislative proposal was passed (along with the House companion measure) and signed into law by Governor Lincoln Chaffee.
Over the years, Nesselbush also worked to help victims of domestic violence, the homeless, the injured and the disabled. “Nesselbush’s creative leadership and tenacious hard work played a vital role in the historic passage of marriage equality, successfully ending centuries of discrimination; this made her the obvious choice by the Committee to be Pawtucket’s first “Person of the Year” said McGill.
Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, notes “she has sponsored many important pieces of legislation, specifically bills to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, protect victims of crime, and to protect workers from exploitation. “I can think of no one more deserving of the recognition of being named to the Pawtucket Hall of Fame. It is my good fortune to call her a friend,” says Paiva Weed.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien agrees with both McGill and Paiva Weed about the selection of Nesselbush. “They couldn’t have gotten it more right, he said, noting that she is “one of our city’s strongest leaders.”
Making a Difference in the Community
Nesselbush’s long list of professional and personal accomplishments caught the attention of the Pawtucket Hall of Fame Committee. The 52-year old Pawtucket resident is a founding partner of the law firm of Marasco & Nesselbush, serving the injured and disabled. As an attorney, she has represented hundreds of Social Security Disability claimants at all levels of review before the Social Security Administration, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, the Appeals Council, the United States District Court, and the United States Court of Appeals.
Nesselbush, a graduate of Brown University and Suffolk University School of Law, now serves as Chief Judge of the Pawtucket Municipal Court and Vice-President of the Municipal Court Judges’ Association. She is the founder and Chair of the Rhode Island Bar Association’s Social Security Disability Committee.
In the past, the two term Senator has been honored for her work by numerous organizations. Most recently, in May of 2014 she received the distinguished Ada Sawyer Award from the Rhode Island Women’s Bar Association. She has also received Appreciation Awards from Crossroads Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless. At Brown University she received the Sarah Doyle Prize “for making a significant contribution to women on campus and in the community,” and at Suffolk she received the Leo J. Wyman Award.
Bringing Marriage Equity to the Ocean State
With all of Nesselbush’s accomplishments, the Pawtucket Hall of Fame Committee zeroed in on her successful efforts to provide all Rhode Islander’s the right to marry the person they love.
Nesselbush had observed and participated in the intensely public (and simultaneously personal) debate on marriage equality over the years. Last year’s legislative policy debate put real faces to this religiously-charged issue, she said, noting that it was personal, political and professional all at the same time in that, as a judge, she was qualified to officiate at marriages, but as a person, she was not allowed to marry the woman of her dreams.
Nesselbush mentions a significant change in the times and in social mores, noting that as the debate raged, everyone seemed to know someone who is gay, and her lobbying conversations almost always began or ended with, “yes, I know ‘so and so’ who is gay; s/he’s great and has a great partner.”
Changing Rhode Island’s law to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry took a long time, a broad coalition in support, and an openly gay Speaker of the House, says Nesselbush, referencing former House Speaker Gordon Fox. The Pawtucket Senator added, “victory has many parents, and I was indeed honored to advocate for the issue alongside many outstanding grassroots organizations, like Rhode Islanders United for Marriage, and many local church and business groups and some of the state’s top political brass.
For almost 20 years, state lawmakers had grappled with the religiously charged issue of same-sex marriage. Throughout the years, Nesselbush attended many of the legislative hearings in support of same-sex marriage, only to see bills inevitably “held for further study.” Once she became a Senator, she clearly understood that this legislative code phrase often means the legislative proposal is…dead.
In 2010, as a newly elected Senator, Nesselbush was learning the legislative procedural ropes. Knowing that she was both new and walking a tight rope, she learned the fine art of vote counting. She scrambled to count votes only to realize that marriage equality would not in that year even get out of the House. Rather, the House passed a watered down, “skim milk” (in the words of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg) version entitled Civil Unions. Nesselbush voted against the Civil Unions bill, noting that she and Rhode Island’s LGBTQ community would not accept second class status. Though she acknowledged that Civil Unions bestowed some needed rights, she wanted to “take the high road,” voting against this less than desirable and often vilified vehicle. She wanted to stand for the proposition that separate is never equal; gay and lesbian couples deserve full marriage equality.”
Although the marriage equality bill was stymied in 2010, three years later Nesselbush was in the perfect position to champion the Senate bill; she was openly gay and no longer a rookie. She was determined to honor former Senator Rhoda Perry who carried this torch in the Senate for over 15 years, changing hearts and minds but falling short of getting the bill passed. Upon Perry’s retirement, Senator Sue Sosnowski of South Kingston, a long time civil rights advocate, was next in line to sponsor the marriage equality legislation. Nesselbush notes Sosnowski’s “generosity of spirit,” as she willingly stepped aside to allow the only openly gay Senator to “take the lead.” Nesselbush gives thanks and credit to Senate Majority Whip, Maryellen Goodwin, of the City for helping to massage the Senate’s customary seniority system, allowing Nesselbush to become the lead Senate sponsor.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-4 to pass Nesselbush’s same sex marriage bill along with the House companion measure. Both measures were passed by the Senate, and by the House in concurrence, and Governor Lincoln Chaffee put his pen to paper, signing the historic measure into law on May 3, 2013.
Bowing to the powerful Catholic lobby, the General Assembly leadership put language in the House and Senate bills reiterating the constitutionally guaranteed freedom for religious institutions to set their own guidelines for marriage eligibility within their faith, stipulating that under no circumstances will clergy or others authorized to perform marriages be obligated by law to officiate at a same sex marriage.
Through Nesselebush’s leadership, Rhode Island joined its New England neighbors, becoming the 10th state in the nation to enact marriage equality. Today, a total of 19 states and the District of Columbia have enacted marriage equality, and Nesselbush “predicts that the remaining ‘house of cards’ will fall quickly as ‘marriage equality fever’ spreads through the entire nation.”
The Pawtucket Hall of Fame 23rd Annual Dinner and Induction Ceremony is scheduled for October 28, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. (pre-induction reception at 6:00 p.m.) at the Le Foyer Club, 151 Fountain Street, Pawtucket. To purchase tickets, contact Ken McGill at 401 728-0500, Ext. 283.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering, aging, health care and medical issues. He is a member of the Pawtucket Hall of Fame Committee and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.