Clinton Faulted on Response to Marriage Ruling

Nuanced stand by two New York senators in sharp relief to that of most local Dems

After the State Court of Appeals’ ruling last Thursday affirming state law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, prominent state and city politicians, some quickly, others more reluctantly, offered their reactions, ranging from approval to vehement criticism—to blandly neutral talking points, in the case of New York’s two U.S. senators.

While numerous Democrats in city government and the state Legislature were quick to condemn the ruling and push for action in Albany, Republican Governor George E. Pataki voiced support and said he would veto any gay marriage bill that reached his desk. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the two principle defenders of the state law at the Court of Appeals, refrained from criticizing the ruling, but both pledged to seek a change in state law.

The response from New York’s two Democratic senators was more muted.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was slow in commenting at first, but finally issued a statement through her office, saying she supported “full equality for people in committed relationships, including health insurance, life insurance, and pensions, and hospital visitations,” failing to even mention the ruling. Along with senior Senator Charles Schumer, however, she did reiterate her support for civil unions, which is the safe harbor position both have adopted to avoid being tagged as gay marriage supporters.

The New York Times, reporting on Saturday, said that Clinton’s use of the term “full equality,” drew fire from gay marriage advocates who said that the language was aimed at conflating her position with demands for “marriage equality,” simultaneously making a bid for gay support while falling short of actually changing her stance.

The executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, Alan Van Capelle, explicitly contrasted Clinton’s position with that of other leading statewide Democrats and labor leaders, including the attorney general, the state comptroller, and the head of the powerful 1199 local of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), voicing the hope that “she will stand with Eliot Spitzer, Alan Hevesi, Dennis Rivera, and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” who support gay marriage.

Van Capelle’s pressure on Clinton comes four and half months after the leak of a memo he wrote to Pride Agenda board members in February, urging them not to support an upcoming LGBT fundraiser for the senator and pressing her to support same-sex marriage.

The responses from Clinton and Schumer reflect the ginger handling of the gay marriage issue that they have typically demonstrated. During the LGBT Pride Parade last month, both were unwilling to comment on the possibility of a favorable ruling from the Court of Appeals—which might have forced them to take sides if a right-wing backlash pressed to overturn gay marriage with a state constitutional amendment. Instead, both responded to questions from Gay City News with a wait-and-see attitude, reserving their comments until after the decision.

Earlier in June, neither spoke during the Senate debate over the Marriage Protection Amendment aimed at barring same-sex marriage—and perhaps even domestic partnership arrangements—despite the fact that during a May meeting at City Hall with out lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the city’s gay leaders, representatives of both were told that the community expected Democrats to use the divisive ploy by the Republicans as a platform to speak positively about the dignity of LGBT families. The two senators voted against the amendment this year and in 2004, but in floor speeches during the 2004 debate, both focused on the effort as a GOP diversion, neither of them making any positive statements about the gay community.

Clinton’s Democratic opponent in the September 12 primary, Jonathon Tasini was quick to denounce the ruling, and the senator’s reaction to it. “By continuing to triangulate and mouth poll-tested reaction to the discriminatory ruling by the State Court of Appeals, my opponent is actively encouraging the continuation of blatant discrimination against gays and lesbians,” said Tasini, who has won the support of a number of liberal Democratic clubs because of his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.