Gillibrand’s N.Y. Marriage Fight

BY Andrew Harmon

May 17 2011 10:00 AM ET

“We’re going to win marriage equality in New York. I’m telling you.”

Sitting in her Washington, D.C. office on a recent afternoon with two Diet Cokes placed in front of her (one nearly flat, the other an ostensible back-up), New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand was eager to talk about her state’s battle for marriage. Very eager, in fact, even though unbridled optimism on the topic has been backhanded by political reality before.

In 2009, after marriage equality supporters waged a $1 million battle in the nation’s third-most populous state, the New York state senate voted 38-24 against a bill that would have granted marriage rights for same-sex couples — a stinging defeat by any measure.

This year is a different story, or so we’ve been told — and Gillibrand, along with a dizzying number of power players, seems to adamantly believe this. Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo kicked off a statewide marriage campaign tour to bolster efforts by the bipartisan coalition New Yorkers United for Marriage, and supportive luminaries have been out in force. Chelsea Clinton manned the phone bank during the coalition’s first week of public lobbying earlier this month, the same day that her father, former President Bill Clinton, issued a statement in support of marriage equality. Both senators Gillibrand and Charles Schumer have made testimonial videos for the effort. So has everyone from Sean Avery of the New York Rangers to CNN’s Larry King (an eight-time veteran of the institution).

New York assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell last week reintroduced a marriage bill —one that’s passed the assembly three times before — but Gov. Cuomo doesn’t support bringing a bill to the senate floor until the votes are publicly secured. Thirty-two are needed, and only 26 senators, all Democrats, are confirmed as of press time. Meanwhile, Republican political contributors, including hedge fund manager Paul E. Singer, have largely driven fundraising efforts for the marriage coalition, according to The New York Times.

In Washington, Gillibrand has been manning the phone. Of the personal calls she said she’s made to undecided state senators in recent days, Senator Gillibrand told The Advocate that one lawmaker has privately committed to a “yes” vote. Another two are “leaning yes,” with another two undecided, she said. Others have not yet returned her calls (Gillibrand and her office declined to specify with whom she’s had personal discussions).

Gillibrand spoke to The Advocate about legislative prospects, a two-thirds support for gay marriage from the Clinton family (so far), and thoughts about a pro-marriage equality president.

Advocate.com: There are questions as to whether there are enough votes in the state senate to pass marriage equality. How concerned are you?

Gillibrand: I am not concerned. I believe we will have enough votes, and I’ve been making calls all week, talking to the undecided, and I think I’m making great progress.

How many state senators have you reached out to?

All of them — all the undecided.

And what have those conversations been like?

Receptive. People are very grateful that I’m calling. I ask them how they are feeling about this issue, if they are interested in talking to me about what their views are, and about whether they’d be interested in hearing my perspective on why I think it’s important. And almost all of them say, “Yes, I’m very interested.”

I’ve talked a lot more about the effect on families. I see this as a generational issue. In our generation, so many gay couples are having children, and we want to make sure that all rights and privileges that accrue to all married couples also accrue to gay couples, because those protections largely are in place to protect children; they’re there to protect families. And when you talk about that perspective, I think people feel that they have a greater responsibility for the good of the community.

Also, the issue of bullying. Because when a state legislature says, “We accept marriages between gay couples,” it is saying, “We accept people being gay.” That we accept and want them to be treated with respect, with dignity, with fairness and equality.

And a number of these undecided senators have voted in favor of an anti-bullying statute. They’ve voted in favor of an adoption statute. And so I urge them that they need to show leadership on this. Because this is a statement that you believe in equality — fully.

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