When every member of the state's congressional delegation except Representative Stephen F. Lynch signed onto a brief Friday asking the US Supreme Court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, it seemed like a case of the South Boston Democrat being a bit more conservative than his liberal Massachusetts colleagues.
But then his congressional office said it was a matter of unreceived e-mail, not a political decision by Lynch to stay on the sidelines, calling him an unwavering defender of gay rights. His Senate campaign went a step further, suggesting that Lynch — who lacks the national Democratic backing of his special election opponent, Representative Edward J. Markey — might be the victim of a deliberate exclusion.
On a quiet Friday afternoon, that created a kerfuffle among the Democratic establishment, with sparring between the campaigns and a flurry of tweets among those taking sides or trying to figure out what really happened.
"Blame the staff or blame the e-mail, the request certainly didn't get to him, because he would have signed the briefs," said Lynch campaign spokesman Conor Yunits, describing Lynch's evolution over two decades to become an avowed supporter of same-sex marriage.
Late in the day, a spokesman for US Representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who helped organize signatures for the brief, confirmed that Nadler's office had e-mailed the invitation to a Lynch staff member who apparently no longer works for Lynch. They assumed that the silence meant that the Massachusetts congressman was not interested.
Markey supporters had already pointed out that Lynch failed to sign three friend-of-the-court briefs challenging DOMA going back to November 2011, a pattern they said speaks for itself. Nadler's spokesman, Ilan Kayatsky, could not address the earlier briefs.
An aide for a senior Democratic House member who signed all four briefs said it is unlikely that Lynch missed all of them because of e-mail glitches. "With the level of publicity around each of these, I find it very difficult to understand that that could possibly happen," said the aide, who spoke anonymously because the aide's boss wished to stay out of the Lynch-Markey fray. "It'd be one thing if he missed the first one, but to miss four, it just doesn't hold any water."
The much-ado-about-e-mail started innocuously, with a release Friday from Markey's House office just before lunch, pointing to his own signature on the brief and reminding constituents that he opposed the Defense of Marriage Act even back in 1996, when it passed Congress overwhelmingly.
"It's long past time to abolish DOMA and send this discriminatory law to the pages of the history books," Markey said.
By early afternoon, MassEquality — the Boston-based advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights — had tallied the names and discovered that Lynch's was missing, blasting that fact to its 5,400 politically active Twitter followers.
So it was only a matter of time before Lynch's House office and campaign were fielding reporters' questions about the brief, prompting a statement from Lynch's congressional spokeswoman.
"As a result of an e-mail miscommunication, our office was not made aware that the amicus brief was being circulated. Congressman Lynch has long opposed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and believes that DOMA is unconstitutional. Congressman Lynch has also consistently cosponsored the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA," spokeswoman Meaghan Maher wrote, declining to elaborate on what sort of "miscommunication" occurred.
Yunits, the campaign spokesman, later clarified by phone: "My understanding is that an e-mail request was sent to a former member of the staff," inadvertently, and without bouncing back, "and no follow-up was made to the office."
But he took to Twitter to suggest a conspiracy on behalf of Markey, who gained the backing of the Washington establishment early on in an attempt to warn off primary challengers before a looming showdown against Republican Scott Brown, prior to Brown's decision to sit out the race.
"Request to sign amicus letter was never received. Convenient given DC effort to choose candidate," Yunits tweeted, adding, "Too bad DC continues to apply pressure on behalf of chosen nominee and not let Massachusetts Democratic process prevail."
Though Lynch has cast a number of votes to support same-sex marriage and gay rights in recent years, he galvanized support for his first state legislative race in 1994 around his opposition to allowing a gay group to march in South Boston's privately-organized St. Patrick's Day parade and had a conservative record on gay rights issues at the State House.
But Lynch's moves in recent years include signing on as one of the sponsors, along with Markey, of legislation to repeal DOMA, the federal law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Last year, he received a score of 90 out of 100 from from the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay rights. That was 10 points behind the other Democrats in the Massachusetts delegation, but well ahead of the 55 earned by Scott Brown, then a senator.