Friday, November 14, 2008

Activists and pundits discuss possible marriage timeline in New York

As the fallout over the passage of Prop 8 continues to unfold across the country, the movement for LGBT rights has turned to New York as the next state to potentially extend marriage for same-sex couples. The question as to when lawmakers in Albany will take up the potentially divisive issue remains somewhat uncertain with the economic crisis and the multi-billion dollar budget deficit, but activists and pundits with whom I spoke this week for my EDGE New York on the marriage timeline indicate legislators will most likely debate same-sex nuptials sometime in the spring.

As activists continue to lick their wounds from the passage of Proposition 8 and other anti-gay ballot initiatives, the movement for LGBT rights has begun to shift its focus to New York as the next state to possibly extend marriage to same-sex couples. Some observers caution, however, Albany lawmakers may not make gay and lesbian nuptials an immediate legislative priority.

Marriage Equality New York executive director Cathy Marino-Thomas said she expects legislators will debate the issue once they address the burgeoning economic crisis and pass a budget in the spring. She added she feels marriage will become a legislative priority if Democrats elect state Sen. Malcolm Smith [D-St. Albans] as the next Senate Majority Leader. Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., [D-Bronx] and a handful of other dissident Democrats known as the "Gang of Four" have raised objections to Smith’s possible election based, in part, because he supports marriage for same-sex couples.

"It’s really up in the air with this issue with Ruben Diaz," Marino-Thomas said.

WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer agreed. He added the economy will almost certainly remain the dominant issue in Albany in the coming months.

"People in the new Democratic majority won’t want to be seen as pushing through a social issues agenda that they may have to get out in front of their constituents on right away," he told EDGE in a recent interview. "Everybody is going to need to look like they’re dealing with an emergency that’s an emergency. When they get some big things done on [the economy,] they can then figure out where they can spend political capital on other things."

With a majority in the state Senate, Democrats control both legislative houses and the governor’s office for the first time since the Great Depression. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer introduced a marriage bill in April 2007. The Assembly later passed it by an 85 to 61 margin.

Governor David Paterson supports marriage for same-sex couples. And he issued an executive order in May that mandated state agencies recognize gay and lesbian nuptials legally performed in other jurisdictions, but Lehrer speculated some lawmakers who have publicly supported marriage for same-sex couples could have second thoughts as a result of Prop 8’s passage.

"I wonder if all the Democrats-or enough Democrats-would line up to pass it anyway only because as we saw in California, there’s still opposition out there in pretty liberal states," he said as he further questioned whether some New York politicians may take into account whether their constituents would support a vote in favor of legislation to extend marriage to gays and lesbians. "Even if there hasn’t been polling done in every district, they are maybe going to look at what happened in California and say hmm, am I going to put myself at risk at this time."

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in June found 42 percent of New York voters said they support marriage for same-sex couples. Twenty-one of those surveyed said they feel the state should not legally recognize same-sex relationships.

Former ACT UP member Jay Blotcher expects Albany lawmakers will make marriage a priority next year. He co-organized an anti-Prop 8 protest against the Mormon Church on the Upper West Side that drew up to 10,000 people on Nov. 12. Blotcher added he feels activists will continue to pressure legislators to take action on this issue.

"There is a real groundswell of energy to bring to bear on Albany to move ahead on marriage equality," he said. "All the elements are there for marriage equality in New York State. I know at least 10,000 people who want to make it happen."

Marino-Thomas added she feels fallout over Prop 8 may actually benefit her organization and other New York activists.

"All of the attention being paid to the blatant discrimination... will ultimately help people better understand the issue and see it as the civil rights issue it is," Marino-Thomas said. "This can only help the movement in its entirety."

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