NJ Senate Leaders Challenge Christie on Marriage Referendum

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com January 24 2012 9:30 PM ET

Following approval of the marriage equality bill in the New Jersey senate judiciary committee on Tuesday, the trio of Democratic leaders backing the measure rejected a suggestion from Governor Chris Christie that the issue be put to voters in a referendum this fall.

“We do not put civil rights questions on the ballot,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a co-sponsor of the bill, at an afternoon news conference in Trenton. She had cautioned during the committee hearing that New Jersey voters rejected a ballot question that would have allowed women to vote in 1915, five years before Congress granted the right.

Weinberg accused Republican members on the panel of taking a “cop out” by saying that even though they may not be opposed to same-sex marriage, they believe the issue should be decided by voters.

“We’re not putting the governor’s appointments to the Supreme Court on the ballot,” she said. The remark stung in the wake of Christie’s announcement Monday that he would nominate Bruce Harris, an African-American Republican mayor of Chatham Borough, as the first openly gay justice on the high court.

Senator Weinberg, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Senator Ray Lezniak, the primary sponsors of the bill, reacted to a statement Christie made at a town hall while the committee hearing was underway. The governor, who appeared in recent days to be wavering on his veto ultimatum, renewed his promise to reject a same-sex marriage bill outright and called for lawmakers to put a referendum on the ballot for voters this fall. A Quinnipiac University poll last week found that New Jersey voters support same-sex marriage by a margin of 52% to 42%.

"Let's let the people of New Jersey decide what is right for the state,” he said.

The marriage equality bill, championed by Democratic leaders of both houses as their top priority this session, passed the senate panel Tuesday in an 8-4 party line vote. Senator Paul Sarlo, a Bergen County Democrat who voted against the bill two years ago, changed his vote to yes.

Sweeney expects the bill will pass when it comes for a floor vote on February 13. An earlier version of the bill died in the senate in 2010 with a 20-14 vote. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver has also expressed confidence the bill will pass her chamber.

However, Democrats in both houses still need to secure enough votes for an override in the event of a veto, a prospect that seemed likely after the latest comments from the Republican governor. The lawmakers urged Christie to allow members from his party to vote yes on the bill despite his plan to veto it.

“When he does that, it’s my hope that he would give direction to his Republican colleagues that they should vote their conscience,” said Senator Lezniak, who co-sponsored the bill two years ago with Weinberg. “Because I know that if they vote their conscience, not only will they vote for this bill but they will override the governor’s veto.”

Sweeney, who abstained from the vote in 2010 and later called his decision a “mistake,” said he has spoken with “many Republicans” who want to vote for the bill. So far, only one Republican senator, Jennifer Beck, publicly supports the bill, but at least a handful of them would be needed to reach the two-thirds majority. Democrats control the chamber by 23-16, with one open seat, and Sweeney has expressed confidence that as many as 22 Democrats support the bill.

“If we have to go for an override we’ll work every angle we possibly have to,” he said during the news conference.

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