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Marriage for NY Gay Families Hinges on State Senate

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 12, 2009
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With a bill to legalize marriage equality expected to sail through the New York State Assembly, the real question becomes whether the measure can clear the state Senate.

In 2007, well before last year’s election brought a majority of Democrats to the state Senate, the Assembly had passed a marriage equality bill that was never allowed to come up for a vote under the Senate’s then-Republican leadership.

Now, even though the Democrats narrowly dominate the Senate, the outcome is far from certain: for one thing, any successful legislation needs 32 votes to pass the state Senate, and there are exactly 32 Democrats in that lawmaking body, a situation that The New York Times profiled in a May 10 article.

The result has been instances of legislative gridlock, because small groups of lawmakers, or even individuals, can derail important pieces of legislation if they don’t get concessions or provisions they want, the article noted, quoting Senate Speaker Malcolm A. Smith.

Smith said that when it comes to getting laws passed, "It’s not about [the] merit [of the legislation]. It’s just about what gets us there with the votes that we need to get it passed."

Commenting on the makeup of the state Senate, Assemblyman Richard L. Brodsky noted, "When you require 32 people to do anything, and you only have 32 people, I don’t care if you’re the New York State Senate or the catering committee for the junior prom: nothing is going to get done easily.

"The Democrats will adjust and do a good job, but it’s going to take some time," Brodsky added.

By contrast, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, with a more definite Democratic majority, "has 60 members he can let off the hook, said Smith.

Smith added that the makeup of the Assembly allows Silver to "pontificate, he can change his mind, he can dance, he can sit still.

"Because at the end of the day, he has 60 or 70 members that don’t have to stand up and take a position on anything."

Bills relating to issues such as transportation are now getting caught up in the Senate; when it comes to marriage equality, which does not enjoy the support of all Democrats, the situation is even more sticky. As noted in an EDGE article from April 14, the long-ruling paradigm in New York politics is that state lawmaking comes down to a de facto triune: the Governor and the heads of the Assembly and the Senate.

Noted the EDGE article, "The old Senate head was implacably opposed to gay marriage. The new one, Malcolm Smith of Queens, is vocal in his support.

"The leader of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, is a practicing Orthodox Jew. But the area he represents, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is one of the most liberal, and Silver is nothing if not politically astute; he has implied he will do nothing to oppose the measure.

"The problem is in the Senate. Although there is a Democratic majority, at least two if not three Democrats are so opposed to gay marriage that it became the major sticking point in the election of Smith to head the body after last year’s election."

Added the EDGE item, "Paterson had indicated earlier that the state’s budget crisis prevailed over any social engineering. But Vermont (and Iowa) changed all that.

"Today, the wind appears to be behind the back of marriage advocates," EDGE noted, though that will depend on how many Republicans favor marriage equality as much as whether all Democrats will support it.

Indeed, not all state Senate Democrats do support marriage rights for gay and lesbian families. Senator Rubén Díaz Sr., is vocally opposed to marriage equality, to the point of partaking in anti-marriage rallies; as for the other side of the aisle, one Republican has voiced support for family equality, according to a May 3 article in New York Magazine which named that GOP senator as James S. Alesi.

New York Magazine estimates that the measure lacks six votes to clear the Senate, though the article also cites GLBT equality group Empire State Pride Agenda as speculating that four Democrats (of seven who are opposed to marriage equality) might be prevailed upon to change their minds.

The group’s executive director, Alan Van Capelle, noted that state lawmakers had had a change of heart in the past; "So we know that when we do the work that needs to be done, which includes giving the facts and telling our stories, people can change their minds," the article quoted Van Capelle as saying.

As far as Republicans who might come to support the right of gays and lesbian families to enter into legal civil marriage, the New York Magazine article said, there’s speculation that Sen. Thomas P. Morahan and Sen. Kemp Hannon might be persuaded to support equal rights for all New York families.

Moreover, a number of Republican state senators have not given any indication on way or another.

A May 9 article in The New York Times noted that state Sen. Vincent L. Leibell has stated that he would support civil unions, but also acknowledged that "society changes over time," while Sen. James S. Alesi noted, "My public opinion has not been stated yet, and it probably won’t be for a while."

The decibels surrounding the issue are rising, but marriage equality supporters have reason for optimism, the New York Times article said: for one thing, Sen. Dean G. Skelos, the Senate minority leader, has given Republican senators leave to vote as they see fit, rather than insisting that they toe a party line.

"Republican legislators will be free to vote their conscience on this issue, without pressure," the article quoted Log Cabin Republicans adviser Jeff Cook as saying.

Added Cook, "And we know if people vote their hearts on this issue, we will win."

However, those determined to prevent gay and lesbian families from attaining equal access to civil marriage have hardly given up the battle. Anti-gay group the National Organization for Marriage, which supported Proposition 8, the California voter initiative that stripped marriage rights from gay and lesbian families, is working to block passage of the bill.

The article quoted NOM executive director Brian S. Brown as saying, "right now they don’t have the votes in the Senate to pass same-sex marriage.

"And as long as we’re able to connect with voters and have them connect with their senators, then marriage will remain the union of a man and a woman in New York."

For some senators, lobbying is beside the point: their minds are made up.

Democrat George Onorato made his stance plain, saying of gay and lesbian families, "They can have all the other privileges, but not marriage."

For others, however, interaction with constituents and marriage supporters had helped them make more informed decisions; the article quoted Democratic senator John L. Sampson, who said that his opposition was waning.

"I do see it differently," the article quoted the senator as saying.

"I can’t impose my own religious beliefs in a situation like this."

Sampson is officially undecided, as is Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a fellow Democrat who comes from a deeply religious family.

"This is an issue that challenges the fundamental beliefs that people have," the article quoted Hassell-Thompson as saying.

"And it’s not easy."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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