Governor pushes same sex marriage debate to front burner



Aiming to capitalize on the wave of momentum created by marriage equality victories in Iowa and Vermont — which led the Empire State Pride Agenda’s top official to say, “I’m embarrassed for New York State” — Gov. David Paterson will introduce a marriage equality bill on April 16.

The Democratic governor’s action comes roughly 75 days ahead of the end of the 2009 legislative session, which means his party’s leaders in the State Senate will have to move aggressively to find the votes for passage that Majority Leader Malcolm Smith of Queens continues to say are not there yet. The heavily Democratic Assembly passed the bill in June 2007 by a comfortable margin of 85-61, and is expected to do the same this year.

On April 14, hours after word of Paterson’s impending announcement surfaced on the New York Times’ Web site, Senator Tom Duane, a gay Downtown Democrat expected to be the measure’s lead Senate sponsor, voiced optimism that, notwithstanding Smith’s caution, “We’re going to do it this year. It’s going to pass this year.”

Marriage advocates, including Duane and ESPA’s executive director, Alan Van Capelle, who issued the “embarrassed” statement last week, acknowledge that Republicans will be needed to pass the bill. Over the past two weeks, Duane, whose district includes Hudson Square and Chelsea, has said several G.O.P. senators have expressed their support to him privately and that their numbers are “increasing.” Van Capelle said, “There are Republicans willing to vote for the bill, but there are still discussions to be had. There are no firm votes.” Both Republicans and some wavering Democrats, he noted, are moving toward the bill out of “personal reasons” — the influence of gay and lesbian family members.

Senate action on a marriage bill was blocked in 2007-8 by the Republicans, who were in control then. In last November’s election, Democrats gained the majority — though narrowly, 32-30. Some Democrats, especially Senator Ruben Diaz, a fiery anti-gay Democrat and Pentecostal minister from the Bronx, are opposed. Diaz initially threatened to deny Smith the majority leader post specifically over the marriage equality issue.

Smith supports the marriage bill, but has consistently said he would only bring it to the floor for a vote when there were sufficient supporters identified to ensure victory — a nearly unvarying practice in the Legislature. On April 8, Paterson stirred something of a Democratic firestorm by telling an Ithaca radio station that he thought the bill should be voted on whether or not passage was assured, a suggestion that some clearly felt was an intrusion on legislative prerogatives in Albany. Both Duane and Assemblyman Micah Kellner, a bisexual Democrat from Manhattan, harshly criticized the governor in interviews on New York 1, Duane saying, “Say what you will about former Gov. Spitzer, a blessing and a curse. However, working with him, we would have gotten this bill passed by now. We absolutely would have gotten this bill passed and we would have had a strategy.”

Now, Duane said, he sees Paterson’s commitment. “Last week, I was speaking from the heart in response to the governor’s vague comments on the marriage bill. Now he’s moved into action, by introducing a bill,” Duane said, adding, “It’s now a larger part of his consciousness. There is now more fuel in the furnace. I don’t want to lose and certainly the governor doesn’t want a loss.”

Duane’s confidence that a vote will be successful this year is stronger than it was just a week ago. On April 8, he told a group of marriage advocates celebrating the Vermont victory in Union Square Park, “There’s a very good chance for this year, because I hope my colleagues are as competitive as I am. But definitely this session.” The distinction between “this year” and “this session” is critical. If the bill does not get done this year, it would slip over into an election year, when the full Legislature and the governor are up for reelection; bringing around fence-sitters then might prove insurmountable.

Van Capelle echoed Duane’s strengthened confidence. “I am convinced that working in bipartisan fashion we will reach the point that we will have a bill that will pass by the end of the session in June,” he said.

The ESPA leader would not quibble with the governor’s suggestion that an up or down vote should happen regardless of the prospects for success, arguing, “At this moment, it is probably the right message. I think that we should not deprive gay and lesbian families the opportunity to lobby their legislators.” Insisting that there will be a vote, according to Van Capelle’s thinking, is the only way to get legislators focused on a controversial issue. Still, the argument over the governor’s suggestion will turn out to be moot, he said: “We will never get to point where we will have to decide whether to have a vote without knowing if we have enough votes, because we will begin debate with the votes to get it done.”

Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, the gay Upper West Side Democrat who steered the marriage bill to victory in his chamber two years ago, clearly saw the flap dividing marriage advocates last week as a tempest in a teapot. “I don’t have any question about the governor’s intentions or commitment to our civil rights,” he said. “I don’t think the governor deserves any criticism. He has moved earlier than Eliot Spitzer did in 2007.” The Union Square Vermont celebration, which drew roughly 100 on April 8, was coordinated by Marriage Equality New York and the Civil Rights Front.

Ken Kidd, a 51-year-old Village resident who has lived in New York for nearly 30 years and works for N.Y.U., was buoyed by the crowd’s enthusiasm. “I am so energized by the fact that there are so many young people here,” he said. “I haven’t seen this many young people outside the campus in a very long time.”

Sue Peters, a 37-year-old who lives in Lower Manhattan, asked if she planned to participate in Equality & Justice Day in Albany, said, “I am definitely considering it. It’s definitely where we need to be.”