Gay marriage not likely to come to Senate again soon
Margin seen killing issue as election year nears
ALBANY — Gay marriage in New York is all but dead for at least the next year after the State Senate on Wednesday defeated a bill legalizing same-sex marriage by a surprisingly large margin.
Just hours after the Assembly again passed the measure and with Gov. David A. Paterson ready to sign the bill into law, eight Democrats and all Republican senators voted against the measure, which would have put New York in the camp of five other states — New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa — that have authorized gay marriage. The vote was 38 to 24.
As gay marriage backers shouted, “Equal rights now” after the bill’s defeat, supporters insisted the measure will return another day. However, both sides said that chance is unlikely anytime soon, given the size of the defeat and the fact that 2010 is an election year for the Legislature.
Every Western New York senator except Antoine Thompson, D-Buffalo, voted against it.
“It’s as sad a day as I’ve had since I joined public service,” said Paterson, who came to the Senate floor to express his condolences to supporters following nearly three hours of at-times emotional debate and the vote.
The governor said the challenge will be to convince reluctant senators that voters won’t turn against them for backing marriage rights for gays.
“We have to make the climate safer for people who were sitting in this chamber who believe in gay marriage but didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to vote for it,” Paterson said.
In a rarity for the Capitol, where only bills that are certain to pass are even brought to the floor, the gay marriage bill proved to be the exception. That was made clear by intense lobbying and vote counting. Some spectators in the Senate gallery texted lawmakers on the floor during the debate. Meanwhile, a cross section of evangelical, Jewish and Catholic opponents and gay rights supporters worked the hallways before the final vote.
After the vote, gay marriage backers did not hide their anger.
“There was a contagious lack of backbone that occurred here today, and I’m angry about that and sad about that,” Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Manhattan, who is openly gay and the bill’s lead sponsor, said.
The measure went down to defeat amid a climate of uncertainty in advance of next year’s legislative races and the rejection of gay marriage last year in California and, more recently, in Maine. A recent special congressional election in the North Country of New York, which saw a conservative candidate force the one-time GOP front-runner to drop out, also stoked fear among some lawmakers about voter backlash. Against all of this was the backdrop that both parties are already campaigning for control of the Senate in next year's elections.
“In the back of their minds, there’s that re-election effort, and we’re kidding ourselves if we say that isn’t part of the process,” the Rev. Jason McGuire, of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative religious group, said of the blanket rejection by Senate Republicans — even those in more left-leaning districts.
During the floor debate, only one opponent rose to address the packed chamber out of the 19 senators who spoke.
“If you put this issue before the voters in a referendum, it would not pass,” said Sen. Reuben Diaz, D-Bronx, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage.
The most recent poll on the issue, released Wednesday by the Marist College polling group, found 51 percent of New Yorkers back gay marriage, and 42 percent oppose it. Meanwhile, 62 percent of Democrats support it, and 62 percent of Republicans oppose it.
As one Catholic Church representative called the defeat a “victory for the basic building block of our society,” gay rights activists vowed political revenge.
“The response in the community is everything from tears to absolute outrage,” said Kitty Lambert, president of Outspoken for Equality, a Buffalo group.
“This just speaks volumes that they are so out of touch with current affairs and with the need for New York to progress,” said Lambert, referring to the negative votes of local senators.
She said gay groups will work especially hard in 2010 to defeat the senators who voted no.
“Finally, we know who the real enemies are,” she said.
Senators who spoke to back the bill made highly personal appeals.
One spoke of a gay brother who chose to live in France. Another spoke of gays who have been shunned by friends and family. Many likened comments made by some gay marriage opponents to the treatment that blacks received in states that had banned interracial marriage.
Sen. Eric Adams, D-Brooklyn, recalled warnings in Virginia only four decades ago of “pollution” by allowing interracial marriage.
No Western New York lawmaker spoke on the floor.
Afterward, Sen. William Stachowski, D-Lake View, said, “My position all along is if we can find a way to get people civil rights, I can do that. But to vote for [gay] marriage, I can’t do that.”
“I believe in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. That’s what I believe,” Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, said.
Some supporters blamed Democratic leaders for not working harder on the issue.
Jeff Cook, legislative adviser for the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, said Democrats needed to provide more votes to get on-the-fence Republicans to vote yes. When it became clear Democrats lacked votes, Republican sympathizers of gay marriage said privately that there was no point to vote yes at this point.
“There’s no doubt there would have been a different result if Democrats had gotten to a range where Republicans could make the difference,” Cook said.
The gay rights community has struggled in recent months over whether it was a good idea to bring the issue to a floor vote with the outcome uncertain or leaning towards defeat. Some said it risked setting their movement back years if such a big and liberal state as New York defeated the bill.
But Alan Van Capelle, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights advocacy group, said there were no regrets with a decision to push for a clear up or down vote. "It gives us, certainly, a clear road map in 2010 about who stood up for our community and who didn't,'' he said of the legislative elections next fall.
"We wanted to put people on the record about where they were,'' he added.
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