A Staggering, Bitter Defeat

State Senate rejects marriage equality 38-24, with no support from GOP

Since May, Senator Thomas K. Duane, a Chelsea Democrat and the chamber’s only out gay member, said he had the votes to pass the marriage equality bill he sponsors. The Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the state’s LGBT lobby, similarly voiced confidence that a bipartisan majority in the 62-member house would vote yes. In October, Governor David A. Paterson, who introduced the legislation that has now passed the heavily Democratic Assembly three times, referring to the Senate’s Democratic conference leader, said, “Senator [John] Sampson I’ve heard on occasion say that he thinks the bill can pass.”

But on December 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.

There will be debate, likely even rancor, in the weeks and months ahead over what went wrong, whether the bill should have come up for a vote if it were destined to fail so decisively, and what to do next.

The immediate reaction, however, was stunned bitterness.

“I really can’t believe that they don’t think my family is as important as theirs,” said Cathy Marino-Thomas, communications director for Marriage Equality New York, as she stood up to leave the Senate gallery after the vote. “I really can’t believe that so many senators could sit there and hear all that positive feedback, look at it, and still vote against us.” With her wife Sheila, Marino-Thomas is raising their ten-year-old daughter in Brooklyn.

Jeffrey Friedman, who is raising a six-year-old son with Andy Zwerin in Rockville Center, asked for his reaction, said, “Just true disappointment. I guess I’m speechless at the moment. They had a chance to do something great today and they chose not to.”

“We should be incredibly angry,” Duane told Gay City News. “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, 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 are, 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.

Paterson, who made the extraordinary gesture of going to the Senate floor after the vote, told Gay City News, “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.”

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 Senator 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, 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 this reporter.

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 who spoke against the bill during the floor debate (leaving the question of what motivated the other 37 no votes wide open) — Democrats could not pass the bill by relying solely on their 32 members.

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’ earlier commitment.

Certainly Van Capelle 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 claimed an open mind on marriage equality in last fall’s campaign, was one of the prime recipients of support last fall 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. Duane gave him $2,500.

Brian Foley, a freshman Democrat from Long Island, who was also uncommitted during last year’s campaign, supported the bill.

One defection was Queens freshman Democrat Hiram Monserrate, who two days later faced sentencing on a domestic violence conviction (he was given probation, with the proviso he perform community service) and also a primary challenge from the Queens Democratic organization. Monserrate, in his years on the City Council since 2001, was a vocal supporter of the LGBT community, and prior to his election to the Senate was on the 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, and 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.”

Craig Johnson, a second-term senator from Long Island, said the marriage bill “is not about an attack on religious freedom.” He added, “If it were, I know we would all stand shoulder to shoulder to fight that attack. This is a time for this body to shine.”

Manhattan’s Eric Schneiderman said, “You can’t legislate morality, but you can legislate justice… This is not a question of religion, it’s a matter of equality.

Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx talked about how 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 the US. Krueger said her family came to America “to escape pogroms… because this is the country that guarantees religious freedom.”

Diane Savino of Long Island became something of a YouTube sensation with a speech that examined the other side of the issue Squadron raised — the threat to marriage not from same-sex couples, but from “those of us who have the privilege of marriage and treat it so cavalierly in our society.”

Saying that Duane and his longtime partner, and out gay Assemblymen Daniel O’Donnell and Matt Titone and their partners have “relationships that I envy,” she related an anecdote about a pedicab driver who saw her Senate license plate in Manhattan and challenged her on why she supports marriage equality. Telling him that his sticking his head in her car window created enough of a relationship for the two of them to go to City Hall and receive a marriage license, she asked, “Do you think that we’re ready for that kind of commitment?”

Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat, reiterated the civil rights thread of the debate, saying, “I can see Dr. Martin Luther King smiling down on us today.” José Serrano, who represents portions of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, said, “History will once again prove this civil rights struggle right.”

In closing remarks in which he seemed to struggle to contain and convey the personal significance of the marriage equality question in his own life, 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.”

Pressed to say how the effort could have been “smarter,” Rouse said he would not Monday morning quarterback the lobbying, but did say that campaign contributions to an Addabbo, for example, are not the end of the matter. “You can’t count on buying a vote,” he said. “We should have tried to get engaged in some of these Senate districts earlier. We need to be much more visible and strategic… find allies in these districts.”

None of the advocates or elected officials would say that pushing for the vote was a mistake or that they necessarily had to wait until after the 2010 elections to look for another bite of the apple.

“We asked for the chance to have our lives debated on the floor of the Senate and we decided that we wanted to get a roadmap for 2010, and we got what we wanted,” Van Capelle said, in a surprisingly upbeat spin on the day’s events. He added that it was too early to speculate on specific next steps.

Parker from Brooklyn echoed the value even in a losing vote. “You at least know who the enemy is,” he said. Cook, speaking for the Log Cabins, declined to rule out another Senate vote before next November. “We’ll see,” he said. Asked when he would restart his colleague outreach, Duane said, “Immediately. Pressure should not decrease at all.”

In keeping with the moxie he demonstrated by coming down to the Senate after his bill was defeated, the governor said, “I’m the one who put the bill on the floor. You can blame me. I accept full responsibility. I thought this bill needed to be voted on. I thought up or down, this is a civil rights issue whose time has come. And I would put this bill out again next week if I thought there would be a different result.”

Asked if there were any point in trying to get another Senate vote next year, Paterson, not missing a beat, responded, “Yes. Winning.”

Christine Quinn, the out lesbian City Council speaker who was in Albany December 1 and 2 to help out in the final lobbying drive, was succinct in speaking to both the sadness and determination that labored to coexist late Wednesday afternoon.

“This is extraordinarily disappointing, no two ways about it,” she told Gay City News. “And people need to be disappointed. My father is 83 years old. Hopefully he’ll live to dance at my wedding. But I don’t know, if they don’t get to it in the next couple of years. But the only people who can ever declare us defeated is ourselves. So, we have to be disappointed, but we need to shake it off. We need to stay focused and keep people accountable.”