Since May, State Sen. Thomas Duane, a Chelsea Democrat and the chamber’s only openly gay member, has said he had the votes to pass the gay marriage bill he sponsors. The Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s LGBT lobby, has similarly voiced confidence that a bipartisan majority in the 62-member house would vote yes. At ESPA’s October dinner in Manhattan, Governor David Paterson, who introduced the legislation—which has now passed the heavily Democratic Assembly three times—said of the Senate’s Democratic conference leader, “Senator [John] Sampson I’ve heard on occasion say that he thinks the bill can pass.”
But on Tues., Dec. 2, when the vote finally came up, it wasn’t even close. By a 38-24 margin, with no Republicans voting yes, the New York State Senate rejected marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Advocates cried in the gallery as the vote was ending, and many rushed down and angrily chanted “equal rights now” as the senators left the floor.
“We should be incredibly angry,” Duane told Chelsea Now. “I’m incredibly angry. I think the community should be very, very, very, very, very angry.”
Stating emphatically, “I’m not the one who ever lied throughout this entire process,” Duane charged that at least eight of his colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, had broken promises made to him, and said that he felt “betrayed.”
After initially declining to respond about what the consequences of such a betrayal would be, Duane stated, “I believe in redemption and rehabilitation. No matter what people did today, we need to quickly provide them an opportunity to redeem themselves. That will get us the votes we had, that we have, and that we rightly deserve.”
Duane is not the only one who is alleging duplicitous behavior on the part of state senators. Just moments after the vote, Paterson told Chelsea Now, “It’s very disappointing, it’s very disheartening. Certainly the promises that were made would have made it a much closer vote, if not a successful vote.”
The governor, too, signaled a strong commitment to soldier on. “I am going to have to find a way to persuade these people to not be intimidated,” he said. “They will not suffer political damage, and it is the right thing to do. And that they will be on the right side of history rather than the wrong side, which is where they are now.”
Senator Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat, was less charitable toward those he believed had walked on their commitments. “I’m profoundly disappointed and sad about the outcome, partly because many of us were given assurances that we had support from colleagues on both sides of the aisle who said they would vote for this today and did not,” he said. “I think this is the worst case of political cowardice that I’ve ever seen.”
Other Democrats supporting marriage equality focused on the lack of a single GOP vote in favor of the bill.
“Nobody on the Republican side believed this was the right thing to do, or did they not vote their conscience?” asked Manhattan Sen. Liz Krueger, alluding to a commitment made months ago by Minority Leader Dean Skelos of Long Island to allow his members freedom in coming to their position on the legislation.
Jeff Cook, legislator advisor to the Log Cabin Republicans—a gay GOP organization—challenged that analysis, arguing essentially the reverse. “Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership promised to get us to a level where Republican support could put us over the top, and we just didn’t get there today,” he told Chelsea Now.
Both Duane and Alan Van Capelle, ESPA’s executive director, had consistently stressed the need for bipartisan support, and expressed confidence that it was building. With Bronx Democrat Ruben Diaz adamantly opposed—the Pentecostal minister was the only senator to speak against the bill during the floor debate—Democrats could not pass the bill with their 32 votes. There was widespread speculation that at best 28 or 29 Democratic votes could be secured, which meant at least three Republicans had to be brought along.
If in fact some Republicans were taking a serious look at the legislation, it may have been the Democrats’ inability to muster more than 24 votes that led the GOP, after a bruising year in which control of the Senate changed party hands several times, to retreat from Skelos’s earlier commitment.
Van Capelle certainly saved his strongest fire for a Democrat—freshman Senator Joseph Addabbo of Queens. “I think if there is disappointment in a real big way, I think I’m very disappointed in Joe Addabbo,” he said. “I think Joe Addabbo is better than his vote.”
Addabbo, who supported gay rights on the City Council and voiced openness on marriage equality in last fall’s campaign, was one of the prime recipients of support from the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee, to which the LGBT community made significant contributions. Addabbo also secured the maximum donation allowed—$9,500—from software entrepreneur Tim Gill, founder of influential gay philanthropic and political action organizations.
Brian Foley, also a freshman Democrat, from Long Island, supported the bill.
One defection was Queens freshman Democrat Hiram Monserrate, who is facing sentencing on Dec. 4 on a domestic violence conviction and also a primary challenge from the Queens Democratic organization. Monserrate, in his years on the Council since 2001, was a vocal supporter of the LGBT community, and prior to his election to the Senate was on record supporting equal marriage rights.
At 24 votes, gay advocates picked up precious little ground from where they were prior to last fall’s election that gave the Democrats a Senate majority, opening up for the first time the opportunity for a vote on the issue.
One significant gain, however, was Ruth Hassell-Thompson, an African-American Democrat whose district straddles the Bronx and Westchester, who was known to have religious reservations about the legislation. After a moving speech about her gay brother who was estranged from her family for decades, living in France, she said, “This vote is about giving people a choice. If there is condemnation in that choice, which there is in my church, that is between them and their God.”
Among the 18 Democrats who spoke about their support for the bill on the Senate floor, there was a consistent effort to emphasize that religious freedom was not at stake in passing the measure, and that marriage equality fit into the broader sweep of civil rights advances.
“I have religious beliefs, but when I walk through those doors, my Bible stays out,” African-American Senator Eric Adams of Brooklyn said. “You don’t have to be gay to respect that two people who meet and fall in love deserve to be married. You don’t have to be black to understand the pain of slavery.”
Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx talked about the way in which his grandmother, who lost her entire family in the Holocaust, welcomed a young man into Klein’s family in New York after he was disowned by his own for being gay. “I saw hatred,” Klein recalled her saying. “He deserves to have somebody. He’s a good catch.”
Daniel Squadron, elected last year to represent Lower Manhattan and portions of Brooklyn, said his own recent marriage “has only added to my personal sense of responsibility” for delivering equal rights to gay and lesbian couples. The separation of civil law and religious belief, he said, enhances the quality of religious life in America. Krueger said her family came to America “to escape pogroms… because this is the country that guarantees religious freedom.”
Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat, reiterated the civil rights thread of the debate, saying, “I can see Dr. Martin Luther King smile down on us today.”
In his closing remarks, Duane lamented what he said was the all-too-common view among legislators dealing with the state’s fiscal morass that “the time is never right for civil rights.” He added, “The paradox is that it’s always the right time to be on the right side of history.”
Diaz, for his part, closed by contradicting the argument that Adams of Brooklyn made, saying, “The Bible should never be left out.”
But that wasn’t the point of the day, according to Marty Rouse, the national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington-based LGBT lobby.
“This vote was not about religion, it was not about morality,” he said. “For a lot of people, especially those who were silent during the debate, it was all about politics. We need to play that political game smarter and more strategically, and we’re getting there, but there is still a long way to go.”