Running Hard For Marriage Equality

Upper East Side Assemblyman Jonathan Bing, four-year incumbent, takes nothing for chance

Jonathan Bing, a two-term Democratic state assemblyman who represents the Upper East Side, wants to make it very clear that he is a strong supporter of civil marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

“The time is right,” he told Gay City News in an interview at his 57th Street district office late in September.

In saying the time is right, the assemblyman is not announcing a recent conversion. When he spoke to this newspaper during his hotly-contested first race for the Assembly in 2002, Bing indicated that he was willing to follow the lead of gay and lesbian advocates, here in the city and in Albany, in supporting either civil unions or full marriage equality, which ever they chose to pursue.

Four years later, marriage equality is all the community is interested in talking about with the state Legislature, and Bing, for one, is convinced his colleagues are ready with a receptive ear.

“My generation of Assembly members, who came in in 2002 and represent a third of all members, are much more open to socially progressive issues such as gay marriage,” he said.

Bing demonstrated his own desire to move out front on the marriage campaign by hosting a forum on the issue at Hunter College late last month around the same time that the Pride Agenda and the Queens gay Democrats were holding similar events in the West Village and Jackson Heights, respectively. Bing’s forum included Senator Tom Duane and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, both Chelsea Democrats who are the lead sponsors of a marriage equality bill in Albany, Susan Sommer, the Lambda Legal attorney who took a lead in the unsuccessful effort to win marriage rights at the state Court of Appeals earlier this year, and Chris Cormier, organizing director at the Empire State Pride Agenda.

Even though Republicans appear highly unlikely to lose their majority in the state Senate this November and their majority must be judged even less likely to vote in favor of gay marriage, Bing believes that the Democratic majority in the Assembly should move next year on passing a bill in that chamber. He clearly thinks the measure has a decent chance of passing. Noting that of the 105 Democrats in the Assembly—out of a total of 151 members—65 are from New York City and arguing that “the vast majority of New York City Democrats are going to support it,” he pointed out that with 58 to 60 ayes coming out of the five boroughs, only 18 or so additional votes are required.

But Sheldon Silver, the Lower East Side Democrat who is Assembly speaker, has been a sphinx on the question, saying it has never come before his conference. Known for an inexhaustible appetite for increasing his already formidable majority, would Silver be willing to risk any seats on a controversial measure that might have no immediate prospects in the Senate?

“It really depends on the results of this year’s election’,” Bing said. “The more members we have, the more members of the conference who might be in a difficult position will be able to not be required to vote for the bill in order for it to pass.”

Besides, the marriage question in New York has moved irrevocably to the Legislature for resolution.

“The Court of Appeals has said the ball is in your court,” Bing said, explaining why Silver might now be ready to take up the matter. “We don’t have the excuse anymore that we’re waiting for the court to decide.”

Then, too, Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer seems headed for a big win in the governor’s race on a platform pledging to introduce a “program bill”—which expresses his legislative goals—enacting marriage equality.

Bing said it is important for his colleagues to talk to Judiciary Committee Chair Helene Weinstein, a Brooklyn Democrat, about taking up hearings on the bill, something Gottfried also recently recommended, and that Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, an out lesbian Chelsea Democrat, said she and her gay, Upper West Side colleague Daniel O’Donnell have already been doing.

Asked how his own constituents feel about the issue of marriage equality, Bing sounded confident that they are strong supporters and said he plugged his forum in his most recent mailing and e-mail message to help raise its visibility. The incumbent pointed out that his district—the fabled “silk stocking” area uptown, largely between Fifth and Third Avenues—has traditionally has been one of the strongholds of Republicans in the city.

Prior to Bing, who formerly practiced employment discrimination law, the 73rd Assembly District was represented by Republican John Ravitz, who gave up the seat. Despite handily winning among a crowded Democratic Primary field that year with strong support from the party’s establishment, including major gay clubs, Bing had a tough time prevailing over Gail Hilson, a former realtor with close ties to Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who brought considerable resources to the race.

In 2004, Bing had an easier time of it, besting Republican Douglas Winston, a city management analyst, about three to one. Still, noting that the Assembly Democrats have named his seat as among the 20 most marginal (though probably the safest in that group), he is taking no chances this year, challenging, though unsuccessfully, the petition signatures of his Republican opponent Robert Heim, a former prosecutor with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In an interview, Bing offered Heim the backhanded compliment of saying he is running as a “real Republican,” not one “saying what he thinks Manhattan voters want to hear”—with support for school vouchers, opposition to gay marriage, but no discernible position on a woman’s right to choose. (Gay City News has not yet sat down for an interview with Heim.)

On other key issues in the race, Bing shows the same enthusiasm for delving into details that he does in pressing his views on marriage equality. On reform of the state Medicaid program, which provides support to a significant number of New Yorkers living with AIDS but is also beset by rampant corruption, he said the Assembly made some strides in this past session—putting in place an inspector general with real power—but did not go far enough. He believes that one key to battling corruption while also empowering those with genuine need is to institute a private right of action to give Medicaid consumers an easier time accessing a fair hearing of their grievances.

On controversial proposals by Dr. Thomas Frieden, the city health commissioner, that would end the requirement for written, informed consent prior to an HIV test and allow public authorities to share patient data with private healthcare providers—proposals which foundered in the Assembly earlier this year—Bing said he thought that opponents of the ideas, including many AIDS advocates and service organizations, had the better argument. Curiously, he said that no one from Frieden’s staff, or the mayor’s office, had contacted him to press their case, despite the fact that he sits on the Health Committee.

As for political reform in Albany, Bing said he supports the leading proposals put forward by the NYU Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, but argued that most pundits underestimate the degree to which rank and file legislators—and not just the legendary three men in a room (the governor, the assembly speaker, and the Senate majority leader)—have power. He pointed to 10 laws he’s written that have become law, including a measure to extend workers compensation eligibility for World Trade Center clean-up workers.

“Even though I am an NYU Law graduate, no one from the Brennan Center has ever spoken to me,” he said. “Very few of the good government groups have spoken to me and other junior members of the Legislature to have a discussion of how things really work and what we’re able to get done.”

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