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O’Donnell Courts Republicans

O’Donnell Courts Republicans


New York state assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell, who introduced a marriage equality bill last week, said he expects more Republican support this year than when his chamber last voted on the measure in 2009.

"I expect more Republican support than we had last year," said O'Donnell, in a reference to 2009, when the bill passed twice, including an 89-52 vote in May with support from five Republicans. Democrats maintain control of the assembly, but their leadership margin thinned somewhat in the November elections.

"We don't have 89 committed 'yes' votes in our chamber, that is true," said the gay Democrat from Manhattan, who added that he keeps an updated "color-coded chart" on the vote count. "But we certainly have more than we need to pass it and we still have a number of 'maybes' out there."

O'Donnell told The Advocate on Wednesday that the undecided votes in his chamber include an undisclosed number of Republicans that he anticipates could support the bill and potentially provide encouragement for their colleagues in the senate. As of now, no Republican senators publicly support marriage equality, although at least a handful of their votes are essential to victory.

"I do not have any more Republicans than I had before as confirmed yeses," said O'Donnell, who has led the bill to passage in his chamber three times since 2007. "I have not added any Republicans to the 'yes' column but there are a number of Republicans who are in play."

Theoretically, Republican support in the assembly could help nudge Republicans in the senate, especially if the assemblymember represented a district that overlaps with that of a senator who is undecided. At the very least, the vote demonstrates that Republicans can support marriage equality in New York and survive politically, as in the case of Janet Duprey, an upstate assemblywoman who lost the influential Conservative Party endorsement over her marriage equality vote, but won a three-way general election in November with 62% of the vote with backing from the Log Cabin Republicans and other groups.

On other hand, a series of three bipartisan votes for marriage equality in the assembly could not convince the senate in 2009, when the bill failed with no Republican support.

"Clearly, the senate has never looked to its colleagues in the assembly for guidance on anything, but the more, the merrier, in terms of being able to provide political cover," said Republican consultant Thomas Doherty.

O'Donnell said the main reason why he introduced his bill was to generate momentum. His move appeared to deviate from the strategy of the New Yorkers United for Marriage Coalition, which this week issued a statement saying that it does not seek "advancement of one-house bills."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is working with the coalition to pass a bill by June, has not presented the Republican-controlled senate with a bill yet, and last week he indicated that he did not want to move forward unless the 32 votes can be found to pass the measure. The bill introduction by O'Donnell sparked a round of questions that prompted Cuomo to elaborate on his strategy.

"I don't know how to answer that," said O'Donnell when asked about the criticism of his move, adding that he has been in regular touch with the coalition and had "made it clear" his introduction was a possibility.

"I introduced my bill for the purposes of beginning the process of communicating with my colleagues to gather sponsorship so that we can show forward momentum on the subject, so that if and when the governor sends a program bill, that work has already been done when that happens," he said.

O'Donnell said June is the earliest his bill could be live, with requests for sponsorship extending through May 25. He said the question of when and whether the assembly would vote on the bill rested with the speaker, Sheldon Silver, who supports the legislation.

"Cautious optimism" was how O'Donnell described the overall mood, where he noted the leadership of the governor, popular support in recent polls, and the advocacy from high-profile figures including former President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea. He seemed less concerned about the ticking clock, with the legislative session scheduled to end on June 20.

"We're still in the advocacy, 'convince them it's the right thing to do' period," he said. As for himself, he said, "I'm hoping to show forward momentum in the sponsorship list as a mechanism to show the senate that there is broad support for this."

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