For Supporters of Gay Marriage, a Dashing of Great Expectations
By Jeremy Peters
New York Times 02/09/2009
When Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A, Smith spoke to a hotel ballroom in Manhattan packed with hundreds of gay-rights advocates, fund-raisers and politicians on Saturday night, his mere mention of the words “marriage equality” roused the crowd.
So when Mr. Smith got to the question on everyone’s mind — whether New York would legalize same-sex marriages — he was greeted with a burst of cheers and applause before he could even finish his thought.
“Hold up,” Mr. Smith, a Democrat, said, trying to temper the excitement. “Although we do not have the number of votes at this time needed to pass the marriage equality gender bill this legislative session, we are committed to pursuing its passage.”
With that, Mr. Smith sent a clear signal that same-sex marriage in New York did not stand a good chance of becoming law this year.
His assessment was a sobering dose of reality for supporters of gay rights, who with their money and support helped Democrats win control of the Senate for the first time since 1965 and hoped to quickly knock down the last remaining obstacle to gay marriage in New York.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Matthew Titone, a Democratic assemblyman who represents Staten Island and who listened to Mr. Smith’s speech, which was delivered at a fund-raiser for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization.
“Even if they don’t have the votes, that’s really no excuse for the leader not to crack the whip, get them in line and remind them that the only reason they’re in the majority is because of the gay community,” Mr. Titone said.
Expectations that the Senate would act this year have run high. To secure their victory in November, Senate Democrats relied on hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from supporters of gay and lesbian rights across the country. A gay marriage bill, which passed the Assembly in 2007 and has the backing of Gov. David A. Paterson, was among the issues that Democrats were expected to press once they took the majority.
Mr. Smith himself said in 2007, “We’re going to make sure that happens in ’08, when we take over the majority.”
But by dampening expectations that a same-sex marriage bill would pass the Senate this year, Mr. Smith sounded less optimistic than some members of his own party.
“I haven’t given up hope that it’s going to happen,” said Senator Thomas K. Duane, a Manhattan Democrat. “We’re still counting votes and lobbying. I’d say the situation is very fluid.”
Mr. Duane added, “I think he’s conservatively estimating next year.”
Indeed, some pointed to the experience in the Assembly in 2007, when supporters of a same-sex marriage bill initially fell far short of the votes they needed.
“We didn’t have the votes in February of 2007,” said Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell, who represents the Upper West Side. “But by June of 2007, we’d passed it. And people said we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
There is an active push under way in the Legislature to tally votes and lobby lawmakers to vote in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Organizers of these efforts, like the Empire State Pride Agenda, said they remain cautiously optimistic that a bill can pass this year.
“I think we are closer than most people think,” said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride group. Mr. Van Capelle said he viewed Mr. Smith’s remarks as a way to “manage expectations” of those who expected a quick victory.
He added: “I think it’s a good wake-up call for the L.G.B.T. community to understand that it’s not the majority leader’s job to get the votes. It’s our job.”
Gay and lesbian rights advocates said they could envision different circumstances under which same-sex marriage would be legalized before the end of the year. One way would be if any Republican lawmakers, who have 30 Senate seats compared with the Democrats’ 32 seats, retire, thereby forcing a special election.
“One would hope that several Republicans retire and that there would be a focus to replace them with pro-marriage, pro-L.G.B.T. Democrats,” said Micah Z. Kellner, a Democratic assemblyman who represents the Upper East Side and was at the fund-raiser.
Another possible outcome is that Democrats who say they would not vote for the bill are persuaded to change their minds. Democrats say they believe there are about five Democratic senators who oppose a law.
In an interview, Mr. Smith, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, said he was hopeful that some of his colleagues would change their minds. “I’m working hard to get the votes,” he said.
Whatever the outcome this year, gay and lesbian advocates said they realized they faced obstacles. “Hope doesn’t deliver legislation. Hard work does,” Mr. Van Capelle said, adding, “A Democratic majority in the Senate is not the finish line for marriage equality in New York State; it’s the starting line.”