As hundreds of
gay New Yorkers joined thousands across the country to
protest for marriage rights Thursday, the prospect of a
marriage-equality bill making it through the New York
state legislature has dimmed, though activists say the
curtain hasn’t fallen yet.
New York senate
majority leader Malcolm Smith told attendees of the Human
Rights Campaign Gala on Saturday that he strongly supports
the right of same-sex couples to marry but that the
votes are still lagging in the senate.
we do not have the number of votes at this time needed to
pass the marriage-equality agenda bill this
legislative session, we are committed to pursuing its
passage,” Smith said, “and the question is not
if, the question is when. So our work still needs to happen
for it to happen this year, but I'll need your help
and I'll need your prayers."
people took Smith’s comments as an indication that
the 2009 marriage effort was all but dead, LGBT
leaders were not as pessimistic.
"I am cautiously
optimistic that if the community does the work we need
to do in the districts we need to do them in, then we have a
good chance at winning marriage equality this year,"
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire
State Pride Agenda, told The Advocate. Van Capelle
said he had already had 15 "very productive" meetings
with state senators this session and, although he
declined to say where the vote count stood, he added,
"I think we're closer than most people think, but we're
certainly not there yet."
Ethan Geto, a
Democratic strategist, agreed that the bill is still
shy on support, but said, “that is true for many
pieces of legislation at the start of a legislative
session that ultimately pass later in the
Geto cited the example of the state assembly’s 2007 marriage-equality effort, which lacked the votes at the outset of the legislative session in January but eventually passed in June by a vote of 85-61. The push was helped when then-governor Eliot Spitzer made good on a campaign promise and introduced his own marriage bill, known as a "program bill" in Albany.
Asked if Gov. David Paterson might follow suit, Van Capelle said, "I don't particularly think we need a program bill this year from the governor -- a program bill is usually a signal to the legislature that a bill has the support of the governor. The governor has gone out of his way to support marriage equality, and so a program bill would serve no tactical function in helping us win marriage equality in 2009."
One more factor lighting a fire underneath senate Democrats is the political reality that the Democratic caucus likely would not have gained a majority in the state senate without gay funding -- a price tag The New York Times put at about $500,000 in an October 25, 2008, article, though many political insiders say the figure easily topped $1 million when all was said and done.
“The [Democratic] majority understands just how central the LGBT community is to their victory -- and their political fortunes in the future,” Geto said.
Smith was clear on that point, specifically mentioning the contributions of LGBT advocacy groups the Gill Action Fund, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Empire State Pride Agenda toward flipping the state senate to Democratic control.
"Most people don't recognize, they fail to grasp, how significant this particular campaign was," Smith said. "Not to minimize what happened in Washington -- I am thrilled about Barack Obama, the first African American president in the United States of America. But you can't take away what Gill [Action Fund], what HRC, and what [the Pride Agenda] has done in the state of New York."
Smith assured the crowd that he would “never forget” the time and effort contributed by gay activists and added that even though people are used to politicians saying one thing and doing another, “that’s not going to happen this year.”
The expansiveness of Smith’s comments on marriage equality and LGBT civil rights -- even invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from an Alabama jail saying, “whatever affects one of us affects all indirectly” -- is, at the very least, a positive sign of his commitment to advancing gay legislation. Just months ago, reports surfaced that Smith may have promised socially conservative Democrats he would delay a vote on gay marriage in 2009 in order to secure his spot as the Democratic majority leader. Smith eventually walked away from those discussions but won the leadership post nonetheless.
If gay activists still question his commitment to LGBT concerns, his speech aimed to quell their doubts.
"As the national debate over gay marriage continues, we are winning in the court of public opinion,” he said. “I believe that the opponents are gripped by a kind of all-consuming passion, if you will, to derail the rights of same-sex couples to unite under the Lord. But there is a spreading consciousness that your vision, your positive vision, will ultimately prevail."
Whether it prevails this year or next is still in the hands of the fates. But the window of opportunity is not infinite, as Gov. David Paterson, who is probably the most pro-LGBT leader the state has ever seen, will undoubtedly face a tough reelection bid in 2010.