Was the Pass Merely a Feint?

Everybody at the fabulously successful Empire State Pride Agenda Fall Dinner understood that persuading the state Assembly to pass a gay marriage bill was task number one for next year.

Tom Duane, the openly gay state senator from Chelsea, explained the strategy to me in a phone call. Every time a neighbor supports gay marriage, “the number of people who support gay marriage increases” in New York State. He was speaking of Canada and Massachusetts, and the enactment of civil unions in Vermont and Connecticut. He hopes that a favorable decision in New Jersey gives a further boost to the cause in New York State.

Everybody I’ve spoken to since the Pride Agenda dinner was held also agreed that electing Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer as governor will be a favorable development. Alan Van Capelle, ESPA’s executive director, in a telephone interview emphasized that he had a commitment that the new governor would introduce a program bill to enact marriage equality—that is one of the measures that the governor specifically asks the Legislature to pass. Spitzer, in fact, has said so several times in public.

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the out lesbian who represents portions of Lower Manhattan including Greenwich Village, believes that the program bill will focus discussion on one measure and make the task of persuading the Legislature easier. Electing Spitzer creates “a new dynamic,” she said.

Spitzer in a break with the style of Republican Governor George Pataki is using his enormous popular support to advance controversial proposals. In the 1998 and 2002 elections, Pataki enjoyed leads over his Democratic rivals similar to that Spitzer currently holds in the polls, but he didn’t use those campaigns to push for groundbreaking ideas. His conservative base became increasingly disenchanted with this timidity and his national reputation among Republicans suffered.

Spitzer is not making the same mistake.

With the election drawing near, Spitzer drew a line in the sand and uttered words that will be repeated often in New York State and probably for the rest of his career.

“We will not ask whether this proposition of legalizing same-sex marriage is popular or unpopular; we will not ask if it’s hard or easy; we will simply ask if it’s right or wrong.” Although it is normally considered a controversial issue, Spitzer has pulled off the neat trick of turning his support for gay marriage into an advantage making him look modern and forward-thinking.

With idealism and fulsome praise flowing, it was jarring when Van Capelle, immediately after the dinner, introduced a note of pragmatism by saying he didn’t expect Spitzer to pass the bill during his first year in office. I wondered if the tart-tongued leader—famed for his broadside earlier this year against Hillary Rodham Clinton for her laggard posture on marriage equality—was giving Spitzer a free ride. Van Capelle told me on the phone he hadn’t succumbed to a fit of caution. In 2007, he will work for passage of gay marriage legislation in the state Assembly.

During the dinner, Empire State Pride singled out Assembly leader Sheldon Silver and U.S. Senators Clinton (again) and Chuck Schumer for their failure to support gay marriage legislation. Assemblywoman Glick, who walks a fine line between loyalty to Silver, her leader, and her goal of prodding him and her other colleagues to support gay marriage, was “surprised” by this criticism. She believes strongly in Silver’s essential fairness. Personal judgments are not paramount for a speaker. The position requires that the needs of the Democratic Party, his members, and the public interest must be reconciled—a difficult but not impossible task.

Glick wasn’t happy that Spitzer wouldn’t be held accountable during his first year in office. She said that it will take a thoughtful public education plan to overcome the opposition of the Catholic Church.

“I was pretty surprised that a video was run attacking people who have been helpful on many of our issues for not being helpful enough while at the same time giving someone who successfully defended the state’s position against gay marriage an opportunity to avoid the subject for this session,” she said, referring to Spitzer’s role as attorney general in beating back the same-sex couples seeking marriage rights before the Court of Appeals earlier this year.

Van Capelle insisted that the lobbying drive must be a cooperative effort among Danny O’Donnell—the Upper West Side assemblyman who feels so strongly about gay marriage that he was one of the plaintiffs that sued for the right to marry his partner—Glick, and the gay community.

“No one person can get his legislation passed, not Danny, not Deborah, not me,” he said. “We must be willing to help.”

And by “we” Van Capelle meant the entire community talking to their legislators. ESPA is offering training at community forums and has a marriage ambassador program for people who want to roll up their sleeves to become deeply involved in organizing their local communities. These programs will next be offered in White Plains and Garden City, with details at http://www.prideagenda.org.

Van Capelle said he understood the legislators’ discomfort.

“This is the first time they have a really substantive bill,” he said. “We’ve never really asked them before.”

Then the steel returned to his voice and he reminded me that the Legislature wanted to wait and let the state’s highest court decide the issue. Well it did that—it decided it was up the Legislature.

“There’s a big task in front of them,” Van Capelle said. “We need more legislators including the leadership to show us the courage needed to pass this bill.”

After all, he stressed, the speaker has a majority of more than 60 members. Silver is not in danger of losing control of the Assembly.

And that was it in a nutshell. ESPA is calling on the Assembly to use its huge popular majority to advance the cause of justice and equality. If Spitzer can do it, so can the Assembly.