Former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman took his most visible step to date for marriage equality in New York Monday when he traveled to Albany to lobby undecided state lawmakers on the bill that could receive a vote in less than two weeks.
The visit, which included a brief media availability with state capitol reporters, marked an unusually public display of involvement from Mehlman, who until now has worked largely behind the scenes in New York. His efforts have included recruitment of some of the heavyweight Republican donors who have helped contribute more than $1 million to the campaign to win over lawmakers in the state Senate, where the marriage equality bill failed in 2009 after passing the Assembly three times.
"A lot of the folks who have been working for a long time on this effort said it would be helpful," Mehlman said of his visit in a telephone interview with The Advocate late Monday night. His other activities in the past year have included hosting a fund-raiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, sponsor of the federal court challenge to California's Proposition 8, and lobbying for "don't ask, don't tell" repeal in the U.S. Senate.
Now living in New York City, Mehlman became the highest-ranking openly gay Republican party official when he came out last August. However, his conversations with undecided state lawmakers did not focus on that distinction or his personal evolution since 2004, when he managed the 2004 Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, in which the strategy included constitutional amendments against marriage equality on the ballot in 11 states.
Mehlman, a Harvard Law classmate of President Barack Obama, said he presented a three-point argument for marriage equality grounded in philosophical, political, and infrastructural reasons.
"The first point was to make the case of why it's consistent with the Republican values of freedom, of strong families and of following the Golden Rule. The second was to speak about how the politics of this issue have changed and are changing as we speak," he said, noting a series of recent polls that show ticket-splitters and independents support marriage equality.
Lastly, Mehlman, who met with 13 Republican lawmakers including undecided senators and some Assembly members who favor the bill, said he reminded them about the growing community of conservatives around the country who support the issue. That list includes former vice president Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush, whose daughter Barbara filmed a video in support of marriage rights for the Human Rights Campaign earlier this year.
"There is a growing infrastructure of people around the country who agree, who are Republicans, who are conservatives, and who are for the cause," he said.
Even so, a Quinnipiac poll from last week showed that while support for marriage equality among New York voters overall stands at the historic high of 58%, Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose it, by 64% to 34%. A Siena poll from May reported a similar result.
Asked about the polling, Mehlman said that the lower numbers still represent an improvement in Republican attitudes. He argued that time is on the side of marriage equality, as national polls show solid support among younger voters from both parties.
"Different polling shows different things. All of them consistently show that Republicans are less supportive than Democrats and less supportive than independents," he acknowledged. "They also show progress and they show significant demographic improvements on behalf of Republicans. If you tell me that you want to predict where someone is going to be on the right to marriage, I would want to know their age."
Although he did not report securing any commitments from undecided senators, Mehlman said their level of engagement left a strong impression. He declined to name the lawmakers he lobbied in person, although recent surveys have identified five Republican senators as being undecided.
"People were very thoughtful and they really listened, and I really got the sense a number of people were really carefully thinking about and contemplating these issues," he said. "I was really impressed by the thoughtfulness that I encountered."
Currently, 26 senators, all Democrats, publicly support the marriage equality bill, which needs 32 votes to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Yorkers United for Marriage, the bipartisan coalition working to pass the bill, maintain that they want to see a vote only on a measure guaranteed to pass.
As of late Monday, no bill had been introduced in the Senate, where the end of the legislative session, scheduled for June 20, is rapidly approaching. Only seven working days remain for lawmakers, but the dwindling calendar did not seem to worry Mehlman.
"Based on meeting with a lot of different folks today, I feel cautiously optimistic about where we stand," he said.