First Washington, Now New Jersey Braces for Marriage Showdown



New Jersey Senate president Stephen Sweeney admits that he made a “mistake." That's how he describes his behavior two years ago, when he abstained from voting on the marriage equality bill and contributed to the 20-14 defeat of the measure. The Democrat blames his move on politics, where he supported the substance of the bill but bowed to the political winds of his conservative South Jersey district.

“I’m a big boy, I made a mistake,” said Sweeney in an interview with The Advocate. While confirming reports that he is considering a run for U.S. Senate in 2014, he insisted his recent sponsorship of a same-sex marriage bill stems from a motivation to remedy an injustice, not career aspirations. “I am going to correct the mistake, and I am going to do what’s right for the people that were wronged," he said. "That’s all this is about.”

If successful this session, Sweeney and other leaders of the Democratic-controlled state legislature could close a bumpy chapter for the state's nine million residents. The saga began when the Supreme Court of New Jersey issued a decision in 2006 that prompted the legislature to pass a civil unions bill later that year. A state commission concluded the civil unions law created a “second-class status” in 2008, but a lame-duck legislative drive for marriage equality failed in 2010 despite a promise from outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine to sign the bill. Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican who succeeded him, does not support marriage equality, a factor that distinguishes him from the Democratic governors of New York, Washington and Maryland, all Catholics like Christie, who have pushed for the legislation. As of Monday, Washington appeared to be on the verge of becoming the seventh state plus the District of Columbia with marriage equality, after the last of the required votes emerged in the senate.

Sweeney said that last time, he agreed to be one of the 21 votes that would pass the bill, but in a “political calculation,” he refused to provide a yes vote for any bill that failed. When Gov.-elect Christie prevailed on five Republican senators to retract their support, it became apparent the legislation could not pass, and so Sweeney abstained, the equivalent of a no vote.

Fast forward two years, and Sweeney believes his chamber has enough votes to pass the bill “easily" next month. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing and vote on the bill Tuesday, and he expects a successful floor vote on the bill on February 13. The vote would mark the first time a marriage equality bill passes either chamber of the New Jersey legislature.

“It’s going to pass,” said Sweeney. “That’s how confident I am. It will pass the senate on the 13th.”

Sweeney also expressed optimism about prospects in the general assembly led by Speaker Sheila Oliver, but passing the bill represents only part of the battle. Legislators need to gather the two-thirds majority required to override a potential veto, should Christie exercise that option after the bill reaches his desk.

“We’re getting there,” Sweeney said of the ongoing effort in his chamber. “This is an enormous lift.” Democrats control the senate 23-16, with one open seat, and Sweeney said it could be possible to get support from as many as 22 members of his conference. He said that Republican interest in the bill is “moving,” although he declined to name prospective GOP votes except Sen. Jennifer Beck, who has already announced her support. “I don’t want any more headaches for them than they’re going to get,” he said.

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