Gillibrand’s N.Y. Marriage Fight

By Andrew Harmon

Originally published on Advocate.com 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.
Were you asked to make these calls?

No. I’ve done it because I feel very passionately about it.

How much contact have you had with Gov. Cuomo on this issue?

The last time I saw him [at a September 11 memorial event in New York City earlier this month], I just thanked him for his leadership on this. I told him how proud I was that he was taking leadership on this issue, and I told him that he would be successful on this issue.

When did you decide in your career that you were in full support of marriage equality?

When I was asked. [Laughs] Well, I’ve always been in support of marriage equality. I have many, many gay friends. My mother had many, many gay friends. And so these friends have been part of our family circle for a very long time. And these are loving, committed couples. You don’t mention Gary without mentioning Jack. That’s just the nature of the friends who we are friends with. So I’ve always believed they should have every right and privilege of every other family in America.

As a congresswoman, I was asked to state my position in an interview with [New York Post Albany bureau chief Fredric] Dicker [in 2008]. And he asked, “Do you support marriage equality in New York?” And I said, “Yes, I do.” And that was when I was a Congresswoman from an upstate New York district, before I was appointed to the Senate.

On the federal level, are you disappointed that there is no bipartisan support on the Senate version of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act?

There will be.

What makes you so sure?

Because, again, time is shifting the landscape. On repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” we had the support of Republicans whom you wouldn’t have imagined.

What’s your view on the House members who have attached amendments to the 2012 Defense Authorization Act to delay "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, as well as to make sure that same-sex weddings cannot be performed at on-base facilities by military chaplains? Can we expect to see similar amendments offered in the Senate bill?

I don’t think so. And I’m confident that they will fail. I don’t think we will see the same push for it on the senate side.

[John] McCain would be the only [senator]. And I don’t think he’ll do it. I don’t think he’ll put his political capital out there to be antigay. Frankly, I think, in another year or two, we would get [McCain] too, in support.

I had many conversations with Senator McCain about his views, and he had a view that, “If it’s not broken, why fix it?” And I said, “It is broken. You just haven’t talked to gay men and women for whom this policy has devastated their lives, has undermined their sense of integrity and character.”

He’s someone who cares so deeply about the armed services, he cares so deeply about the personnel. And I think if he had the opportunity to meet with more gay servicemembers and really hear their experiences in a less polarized and political setting, he would be moved.

If you listen to his speeches, he was just worried about the effect on the troops. One of his arguments was that this will be a distraction, that lives will be lost. And my response was, this is not distracting: Our men and women will perform under the code of conduct that they are expected to perform under. And they’ve been performing their duties with gay Americans since the beginning of time.

Are you concerned for the welfare of gay service members as to how repeal was passed — that they are not part of the military’s equal opportunity policy, that there are many questions about benefits they will be excluded from?

We will work through all of those issues. And that may take time. It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take five years. But that is the nature of changing policy like this. And we will work through all these issues.

What’s your reaction to Navy Chief of Chaplains Rear Adm. Mark L. Tidd's decision last week to suspend his original decision permitting same-sex weddings on base, for military chaplains who choose to perform them? Obviously he has taken a lot of political heat.

These things will change. The military is ready to implement these changes. Politics may well get in the way of the timing of it.
 
Last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney indicated that the administration does not intend to put a moratorium on deportations involving gay binational couples who are legally married. Yet last month you and 11 senate colleagues wrote a letter to both Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano urging as much. Are you disappointed?

It’s disappointing. But this is just the beginning of the debate. The more we highlight the effect this has on real lives, on real families, families with children — people will begin to realize that this policy is the wrong policy.

Should the administration know this already?

Immigration reform has been very difficult, for this administration, the previous administration — this is a very volatile issue nationwide. And as a consequence, it may take the administration longer to get this done than I would like, because I really want comprehensive immigration reform, and I want reforms for the ability for spouses and loved ones to sponsor their partners. But that’s the nature of all these political battles. That you have to build your support, you need to make it a broad-based grassroots support, you need to create the intensity that comes with personal stories and the effects on real people — and that is work that we’re going to do over the next six months.

Has the administration responded to the letter that you and your Senate colleagues sent?

I don’t think we’ve had a response yet.

You’re in a binational relationship — your husband [Jonathan Gillibrand] is from the U.K. How has your marriage influenced your perspective in this issue?

When we got engaged, when we got married, we couldn’t go outside the country to have a honeymoon because Jonathan’s status was pending. We had to be very careful about our travel. It must be an awful feeling for any loving couple to have to worry that your spouse or your loved one is going to be deported at any moment. I can’t think of a more awful, destabilizing, unfair policy. At all. And so we have to do better. And we have to protect these marriages, and these partnerships. Because these are loving couples, and they may well have children, and we should protect those children.

President Bill Clinton has come out in support of marriage equality.

Great!

And Chelsea Clinton is working the phones to get out the message for New York marriage.

Love it.

So how hopeful are you that Secretary of State Clinton might be able to join them in that position at some point?

Well, her role is really to be nonpolitical. I think that — I think that Secretary Clinton supports marriage equality, just my personal view. But I don’t think she’ll be in a position to really engage in a political debate because of her position.

But Bill Clinton is a pretty persuasive advocate. And I think he’ll do just fine on his own.

So I’d have to pose the same question for President Obama. Do you think it’s possible that he could come out in support of marriage equality …

Yes.

…before the 2012 election?

Definitely. He put the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in his State of the Union address. So there’s no reason why he can’t lean into marriage equality in a public speech or through some action he could do through the White House. I’d be thrilled if he decided to do that. He did take the step of not [defending] DOMA through his Department of Justice, which is a fantastic step because it was one that he was unwilling to do in “don’t ask, don’t tell.” So it shows a shift in his willingness to use the power of the White House — the power of the administration — to change public perception and to change policy.

So I think we could get a very strong public statement out of him.