Spitzer Wins Plaudits at Center

Attorney general walks a nuanced, but generally positive line on gay marriage in governor’s race

Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is running for governor next year on a record of having taken on some of the most powerful industries in the state, and last Wednesday evening he appeared before some of the most influential supporters of the LGBT Community Center in an on-the-record appearance.

The reception was enthusiastic.

The invitation-only event brought out a group of people who typically give more than $1,500 a year to the Center to listen to Spitzer’s vision and to ask him questions ranging from fiscal policy to gay rights. Same-sex marriage was the evening’s most frequently invoked topic.

The candidate responded to a question, posed by a man planning to wed his lover in Canada, about what he would do as governor to make gay marriage legal in New York State.

“I will articulate very clearly that you should be viewed as a married couple just as any other married couple and that is the embodiment of rights we should believe in,” said Spitzer, referring to an advisory opinion from his office in March 2004 that judicial precedents in New York courts require that gay marriages legally entered into in other jurisdictions be recognized here.

That same opinion, however, found that current state law does not allow for gay marriages to take place in New York. Spitzer emphasized the responsibility of citizens in pushing for legislative changes and said that the governor does have a role in sponsoring new legislation. Still, he promised to be a gay marriage cheerleader if elected.

“Civil rights advances are the results by-and-large of grassroots efforts,” he said. “If you’re lucky, and I mean this sincerely, there will be enough elected officials who will have the backbone to follow behind you after you’ve made it much easier for us.”

As attorney general, the gay marriage issue has proved tricky for Spitzer. In several cases brought by gay and lesbian couples seeking marriage rights, he has argued the opposing view. That puts him in the same position as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, by appealing the February ruling by State Supreme Court Judge Doris Ling-Cohan ordering the city clerk to issue same-sex marriage licenses, is similarly arguing that gay and lesbian couples have no constitutional right to marry.

At the current time, the city and not the state is the defendant in the Ling-Cohan case, so Spitzer has not yet weighed in on that one. And Spitzer explained that his defense of the existing Domestic Relations Law in other cases brought against the state is something he is “obliged” to mount as the state’s chief lawyer.

Asked about the fact that when Robert Abrams was attorney general during the 1980s he declined to defend the state’s sodomy statute, leaving that job to the district attorney in Buffalo, Spitzer did not address the implications of that or his willingness to argue for the state’s position on marriage. (Abrams was one of the first officials in the nation to issue an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation for employees of the state’s law department.)

Spitzer’s defense of the state in several pending marriage lawsuits is at odds with other signals he sent in March 2004 when he issued his office’s advisory opinion. At a press conference in Manhattan announcing that opinion, the attorney general said that his office’s review had found several “important constitutional questions” that could undermine the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

In at least one of the briefs filed by the attorney general’s office in defense of the existing statute, however, the state argued that the denial of benefits to children because their parents are in a same-sex relationship but cannot marry “does not offend the Constitution simply because the classification ‘is not made with mathematical nicety or because in practice it results in some inequality.’” When asked by Gay City News Wednesday evening what “some inequality” meant, Spitzer simply responded, “What the paper says.”

Despite the incongruities between the attorney general’s political stance on gay marriage and his official actions on the question, many in the room seemed buoyed by the fact he will be the first major party candidate for governor to endorse the rights of same-sex couples to wed.

Speaking to the question of civil rights protections for transgendered New Yorkers, Spitzer said he supports the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), sponsored by State Sen. Tom Duane, who is gay, and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, both Manhattan Democrats.

When asked about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to veto the Dignity in All Schools Act, which would protect public school students and faculty from bullying, and includes specific protections based on perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity, Spitzer said that disagreements over whether the City Council has exceeded its legislative mandate should not obscure important policy goals.

“If in fact the mayor is [making] a jurisdictional point… your next step is to go back and say, ‘Hey Mike, where are you?’” Spitzer said.

Spitzer described his mission as a law enforcer to ensure integrity in the financial markets and in the oversight of labor, civil rights and the environment. His efforts have pitted him against powerful industries from the $7.5 trillion mutual fund industry to supermarket chains fleecing delivery people. His strategies have forced huge and widely publicized settlements from corporate offenders, which led the conservative National Review to dub him “the most destructive politician in America.” Spitzer put a slightly more upbeat spin on that charge, misquoting the magazine as having called him “the most dangerous politician in America.”

Spitzer took pains to assure the audience that his policies were not hostile to corporations, and described the economic climate in New York City glowingly. The “rest of the state,” however, is “in bad, bad shape,” he said. Spitzer described a history of manufacturing fleeing upstate, and said, “We are desperately looking for a different business model for the rest of New York.” He touched briefly on his plans for “creating an environment where people want to come here.”

Spitzer is generally regarded as the nation’s most activist attorney general. In the speech at the Community Center, he described his strategy to made progressive strides against the current climate of Washington politics which seeks to elevate states’ rights above federal authority, which, he said, runs counter to “our” sense that the federal government provides essential protections. He cited John Roberts, Supreme Court nominee, and a member of the conservative Federalist Society, as “one of those who crafted this notion that state rights matter.”

Spitzer charged that in the federal government, conservative Republicans are invoking states’ rights and “turning that against… the alphabet soup” of agencies that includes the Environmental Protection Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“For every tax dollar we send to Washington, we get back 85 cents,” Spitzer said. “We’re talking tens of billions of dollars annually that go to red states, which are by and large poorer.” As a result, in New York, “we have to tax ourselves more, driving businesses out,” he said. “Really, we’re being killed.”

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