Volume 78 - Number 46 / April 22 -28, 2009
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Governor David Paterson introduced a bill for gay marriage last Thursday.

Paterson intro’s  gay nups bill...but Malcolm’s missing

By Paul Schindler

As he introduced a bill for gay marriage in New York last Thursday, Governor David Paterson pointedly cited what he described as the “complete confusion and stunned disbelief” that marriage-equality advocates nationwide experienced in November in the wake of Proposition 8’s passage.

“What we have is not a crisis of issues; we have a crisis of leadership,” Paterson stated. “We’re going to fill that vacuum today. I’m going to put a stop to it.”

The Democratic governor, speaking at an April 16 press conference jammed with other New York political leaders, placed the fight for gay marriage equality squarely in a proud tradition of evolving civil rights; he noted that the path from the Dred Scott decision denying a former slave the right to sue, to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 was less than six years. But he also said the issue’s urgency and the importance of having an up or down vote in the state Legislature this year were in line with the “real reform” necessary to cure Albany’s chronic political gridlock.

“For too long, the gay and lesbian community have been told that their rights and freedoms have to wait,” Paterson said. “For too long, New Yorkers have been told that this dysfunctional government is going to make them wait for openness and real transparency. This is the real reform. The time has come to act. The time has come for leadership.” 

In making this argument, Paterson carried his advocacy for marriage equality one important step further than his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer. The former governor also put his imprimatur on the issue in 2007, introducing the identical “program bill”; less than two months later, Spitzer’s bill was passed by the heavily Democratic Assembly by a surprisingly comfortable 85-61 margin. But the state Senate, then controlled by the Republicans, refused to take up the matter.

This year, the Democrats in the state Senate have a narrow majority of 32-30, but some within their caucus — most notably Senator Ruben Diaz, a fiery anti-gay Pentecostal minister from the Bronx — are opposed. Diaz, in fact, had initially threatened to withhold his vote for the new Democratic majority leader, Malcolm Smith of Queens, unless Smith disavowed any intention of bringing marriage equality up for a vote.

Smith publicly refused Diaz’s demand, but still got his support for the majority leader’s post. Smith is committed to passing the marriage bill, but has said the votes are not there yet, and that it will be taken up only when they are. Two weeks ago, however, Paterson told an Ithaca radio station that he thought the bill should be voted on regardless of whether passage was assured. 

State Senator Tom Duane, who is the lead gay marriage sponsor in his chamber, and Assemblymember Micah Kellner — like Duane, openly gay, who represents the Upper East Side — on April 10 had both harshly criticized the governor in interviews on New York 1 News.

“Say what you will about former Governor Spitzer, a blessing and a curse,” Duane told New York 1. “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.” 

But 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 on April 14. “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 and his Assembly counterpart in sponsoring the legislation, Daniel O’Donnell, an out gay Democrat from the Upper West Side, were there on April 16, as were Mayor Mike Bloomberg, out lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, four members of Congress, and more than a dozen members of the Assembly, state Senate and City Council. Twice, the governor explained that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was not present because of the Jewish holiday. However, the glaring absence of Smith, the Senate majority leader, went unmentioned. 

When asked about Smith’s absence by a reporter, the governor said the majority leader had only learned of the press conference the previous day — despite the fact that the bill’s expected introduction was reported by The New York Times two days prior — and that Smith had a prior commitment. Emphasizing Smith’s strong commitment on the issue, Paterson said, “He will make the final decision. We will respect whatever decision he makes.” 

The governor, however, then reiterated the case for scheduling an up or down vote before the Legislature adjourns in late June: “I was starting to hear that the anxiety and the fear had overcome people to such an extent that we were going to hypocritically demand that the Republicans put the bill on the floor in 2007, and then, when we got the majority, would eschew the opportunity to put the bill on the floor in 2009.” 

In making this argument, Paterson won a second from Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent who appealed a Manhattan marriage-equality court victory in 2005. A year later, Bloomberg’s appeal was successful, as the state’s highest court ruled that gay couples do not have a constitutional right to marry in New York. Yet the mayor now pledges to travel to Albany to testify in favor of the governor’s bill. 

“I’ve never believed that the state Legislature should only debate and vote on legislation that they are 100 percent sure is going to pass,” Bloomberg said. “That is not democracy. We have to have a debate. We have to have a vote.” Albany legislators, he said, should be asked to “stand up and say explicitly on the record where they stand.”

Duane and Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, suggested several days before the press conference that the issue will not, in the end, matter. 

“We’re going to do it this year,” Duane said. “It’s going to pass this year.” 

Van Capelle, who last week complained he was “embarrassed for New York State” in the wake of marriage-equality wins in Iowa and Vermont, said, “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.” 

Duane agrees that Republican votes are needed, and 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” — namely, the influence of gay and lesbian family members. 

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 re-election; bringing around fence-sitters then might prove an insurmountable task. 

Van Capelle said ESPA has closed out its registration for Equality & Justice Day, its annual Albany lobbying effort, this year on April 28, with 2,000 signed up.

O’Donnell, widely praised for steering the marriage bill to victory in his chamber two years ago against what were initially considered long odds, 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,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t think the governor deserves any criticism. He has moved earlier than Eliot Spitzer did in 2007,” when he introduced on April 27 the bill that the Assembly went on to approve. 

Of all the advocates who spoke at the governor’s press conference, perhaps none had a more powerful message than Quinn. As she turned to thank both Paterson and Bloomberg for their work on the issue, she admitted her heart had raced before she stepped up to the microphone.

“It is, if I think back in my life,” Quinn said, “beyond my wildest dreams that I would stand at a press conference next to the governor of my state, next to the mayor of my city, and have both of those individuals pledge their full support for me and my family.”

To gay-marriage opponents, which she called “a minority,” she posed “a simple question.”

“Look me in the eye and really tell me I deserve less,” Quinn said. “Look me in the eye and tell me that Kim and I aren’t a family. That we don’t struggle every day, that we don’t pay taxes, that we don’t work every day for this city.

No one can look me or her in the eye and tell us that — because it is not true.”

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