Bloomberg's Case for Marriage Equality

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com May 26 2011 6:05 PM ET

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a significant address Thursday afternoon in which he made an intellectual and personal case for the marriage equality bill that could come before the state legislature within weeks.

The nearly 20-minute speech, delivered in Manhattan before more than 150 invited guests of the administration, positioned marriage equality as the next step in the inevitable expansion of “freedom, liberty, and equality” that has defined the American experience through the abolition of slavery, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and minority civil rights. The mayor made special mention of New York City as the home of the Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 uprising credited with sparking the modern gay rights movement.

“The time has come for us to fulfill the dreams that exploded into Sheridan Square 42 years ago to allow thousands of men and women to become full members of the American family, and to take the next step on the inspired journey our founding fathers first began,” said Bloomberg to the audience at Cooper Union, which was founded by abolitionist Peter Cooper.

His speech argued for marriage equality in highly personal terms while also directing appeals toward undecided state senators, whom he described as “torn,” urging them to vote on the right side of history. Last week Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent, made his first visit to Albany for the exclusive purpose of lobbying members of that chamber, where no Republican supported the bill in 2009, when it passed the assembly for a third time but failed in the senate.

“It is my hope that members of the state senate majority will recognize that supporting marriage equality is not only consistent with our civic principles — it is consistent with conservative principles,” he said. “Conservatives believe that government should not intrude into people’s personal lives — and it’s just none of government’s business who you love.”

The reference to conservatives holds special import in New York, where Conservative Party leader Michael Long, who opposes marriage equality, has vowed to withhold his party’s influential endorsement from lawmakers who support the bill. In an acknowledgment of religious opposition, the mayor underscored that marriage equality is a “civil issue,” where the bill proposed in Albany puts no requirements on religious institutions to perform or sanction same-sex ceremonies.

By turns passionate and pragmatic, the remarks represented the mayor’s latest use of the high-profile speech medium to address a potentially contentious issue about which he feels strongly. His gay niece Rachel Tiven, the executive director of Immigration Equality, mentioned his defense last summer of the Islamic cultural center proposed near ground zero in her introduction of the mayor.

“I know that he doesn’t agonize about defending these rights,” she said. “It’s not hard for him to come to these positions. He doesn’t weigh his poll numbers or consult advisers. These issues are very clear to him and uncomplicated. Individual liberty and personal freedom are the essence of the Constitution. They are what make us American.”

Bloomberg referenced his niece and spoke generally about gay friends and members of his staff in the speech. Audience members included John Feinblatt, chief policy adviser to the mayor, and his partner, Consumer Affairs commissioner Jonathan Mintz, who attended with one of their two young daughters.

“There’s a reason I’m so passionate about this issue — and so determined to push for change. I see the pain the status quo causes — and I cannot defend it,” said Bloomberg. “When I meet a New Yorker who is gay, when I speak with friends and members of my staff who are gay, or when I look into the eyes of my niece, Rachel, I cannot tell them that their government is correct in denying them the right to marry. I cannot tell them that marriage is not for them. I cannot tell them that a civil union is good enough.”

The audience reserved applause for the conclusion of the speech, except for sustained clapping after the point at which Bloomberg called for both houses of the state legislature to debate and vote on the marriage equality bill this session. That approach would seem to put him at odds with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a coalition of advocates, who stand in unanimous agreement to vote only on legislation that has the 32 votes needed to pass in the Republican-controlled senate.“That’s democracy,” said the mayor. “And the essence of democracy is a
public debate and a public vote. New Yorkers have a right to know where
their elected officials stand. We deserve a vote not next year or after
the 2012 elections but in this legislative session.”

Ross Levi,
executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, part of the New
Yorkers United for Marriage coalition working with Cuomo, downplayed any
prospect of strategic differences in an interview after the speech,
which he roundly praised.

“I think everyone — the mayor, the
governor, the advocates — all agree. No one’s interested in symbolism on
this issue,” said Levi. “Everyone’s interested in winning. I think we
are all squarely on the side of doing everything we can by the end of
this session to have a bill that passes the assembly, passes the senate,
and is signed into law by the governor.”

Richard Socarides,
president of Equality Matters and former LGBT adviser to President Bill
Clinton, called the speech, believed to be the first such major address
by a mayor on the subject, a potential “tipping point.”

“I think
it was among the smartest, most passionate cases for equal marriage
rights as I’ve heard, certainly from a straight politician,” said
Socarides. “I think it’s historic and I think hopefully it will really
help and lead to a victory for this.”

State senator Thomas K.
Duane, the gay Manhattan lawmaker who sponsored the marriage equality
bill in 2009, said he would withhold judgment until senate Republicans,
for whom the mayor has been a major financial contributor, help pass the
legislation.

“The mayor of New York City making a speech about
same-sex marriage is positive because he’s the mayor of New York City,”
said Duane. “There wasn’t anything particularly new in it. The issue
with New York State is to get Republican senators to publicly announce
that they are going to vote in favor of marriage.”

In addition
to his lobbying and the speech, Mayor Bloomberg hosted a fund-raiser
Wednesday evening that generated some $250,000 for New Yorkers United
for Marriage, according to sources. Rufus Wainwright performed, and the
many high-profile attendees included Sarah Jessica Parker, Bravo
executive Andy Cohen, Russell Simmons, and New York City council speaker
Christine Quinn, who delivered remarks.

Advocates anticipate
they could raise as much as $2 million for the marriage equality
campaign, which now appears likely to defy some expectations for a swift
victory and instead continue into the final days of the legislative
session scheduled to end on June 20. Outward attitudes remain cautiously
optimistic, despite a Siena poll
last week that showed public support for marriage equality falling to
54% from April’s historic high of 58%, with opposition increasing to 42%
from the all-time low of 36% last month.

The advocates received
a boost Thursday morning when Joseph Bruno, the 82-year-old former
Republican majority leader of the state senate, reiterated the support
he expressed for marriage equality in 2009 during an interview with the
Talk 1300 radio station in Albany. In contrast to current majority
leader Dean Skelos, who opposes the bill but has vowed not to block a
vote, Bruno prohibited a vote on the legislation when he served as
leader until 2008, at which time he still opposed same-sex marriage.
Also on Thursday, New York State comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a
video in support of the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality campaign from
the Human Rights Campaign.

Cathy Marino-Thomas, board president
of Marriage Equality New York, also a coalition member, attended the
Bloomberg speech, where she recalled sending countless pairs of worn shoes to
Bruno over the years. The message was for him to walk a day in her life without equal rights.

“People
come to this in their own way,” she said. “I don’t care how long it
took to get him, but we did. Let’s move forward and win.”