New York governor David Paterson's pick to take Hillary Clinton's seat in the U.S. Senate, former representative Kirsten Gillibrand, said she would support full marriage rights for gay couples during a noon press conference Friday in which the governor announced the appointment.
"I will advocate for marriage equality, women's rights, preserving Social Security and the retirement that our seniors seem to be losing every day, and call for significant investments in education," she told a throng of politicians and reporters gathered in Albany for the announcement.
Senator Gillibrand, who was generally seen as a moderate-to-conservative Democratic congresswoman from upstate, had previously supported civil unions. But she placed a phone call to the executive director of the state's LGBT rights organization, the Empire State Pride Agenda, Thursday night to say she would back gay marriage moving forward, according to sources familiar with the situation.
"After talking to Kirsten Gillibrand, I am very happy to say that New York is poised to have its first U.S. senator who supports marriage equality for same-sex couples," Alan Van Capelle said in a statement released by the Pride Agenda Friday morning. "She also supports the full repeal of the federal DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) law, repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) and passage of legislation outlawing discrimination against transgender people. While we had a productive discussion about a whole range of LGBT concerns, I was particularly happy to hear where she stands on these issues."
Gillibrand beat a four-term Republican incumbent to win her congressional seat in 2006, was reelected rather handily in 2008, and until now, favored civil unions on the national level as the best way to provide gay couples with the rights and privileges of marriage. Liz Benjamin of the New York Daily Newspoints out this recent Q&A with her on the subject in the January/February 2009 issue of Inside/Out, an LGBT publication in upstate New York.
Gillibrand on marriage versus civil unions: "What I'd like to do legislatively, on the federal level -- and I think we'll be able to do this with the new president -- is actually make civil unions legal in all 50 states, make it the law of the land. Because what you want to fundamentally do is protect the rights and privileges of committed couples, so that they can have Medicare benefits, visit in the hospitals, have adoption rights. All [the] things that we give to married couples, committed gay couples should be eligible for. And then the question of whether you call it a marriage or not, what you label it, that can be left to the states to decide.
"[It's] so culturally oriented. My mom's generation, they want their gay friends to have every right and privilege that they should be eligible for as a married couple, but they feel uncomfortable calling it marriage. To them, a marriage is a religious word that they learned from the Catholic Church: It's a covenant between a man, a woman, and God. So they feel uncomfortable with the word. But they don't feel uncomfortable with the rights and privileges.
"I think the way you win this issue is you focus on getting the rights and privileges protected throughout the entire country, and then you do the state-by-state advocacy for having the title."
New York's senior senator, Charles Schumer, supports civil unions, as did Hillary Clinton during her senate and presidential campaigns.
The Pride Agenda clearly hopes to leverage the position of the new junior senator. The final graph of its press release read:
"Should Governor Paterson name her today to fill the seat held by Hillary Clinton, she will join Governor Paterson, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and numerous other elected officials in the New York State Legislature and across the state who support the freedom to marry for same-sex couples."
Gillibrand has scored an 80 out of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign scorecard and supports hate-crimes legislation, a transgender-inclusive employment nondiscrimination bill (though she voted in favor of 2007's noninclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act), repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, equal tax treatment for domestic partners, funding for needle-exchange programs, and an HIV/AIDS early-treatment bill that allowed states to provide Medicaid coverage for HIV-positive people. (Kerry Eleveld, Advocate.com)