A substantial contingent of elected officials, labor leaders, and other advocates hosted a press conference Wednesday to show support for marriage equality in Queens, N.Y., a borough represented by two undecided state senators key to passage of the legislation.
The event, which brought together federal, state, and local leaders, signaled the start of the final, intensified push for marriage equality as the New York legislature prepares to adjourn June 20. With just six calendar days remaining in the session, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the coalition of LGBT advocacy groups, New Yorkers United for Marriage, and others are working to secure the votes of at least six undecided lawmakers in the senate, where the bill failed in a 24 to 38 vote in 2009.
Two of those senators, Shirley Huntley and Joseph Addabbo, both Democrats who voted no in 2009 but now take an undeclared position, were the unnamed but intended audience for many of the more than 20 speakers at Queens Borough Hall on a sweltering early afternoon in New York City.
“It’s about time that we get back on track, back on being, if not first, maybe being the strongest in terms of our advocacy for equal justice under the law,” said Congressman Joseph Crowley. “That’s what this is about. Equal justice under the law.”
By positioning marriage equality as long overdue in New York, historically in the forefront of the women’s, labor, and LGBT rights movements, Crowley echoed arguments made by Cuomo and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Both the governor and mayor have spoken in their advocacy about the state’s need to live up to its trailblazing reputation.
Since 2008, Crowley has served as chair of the powerful Queens County Democratic organization, which endorses candidates for office. During his tenure, the borough has moved from having five of its seven state senators vote against marriage equality in 2009 to having five senators in support and two undecided now.
New York City Council speaker Christine Quinn, an out lesbian who clinched her leadership position in 2006 with the backing of the late Queens County Democratic leader Thomas Manton, noted the rapid change in the demographically diverse borough.
“When we pass marriage, and I know we will, and I know we will do it with the vast if not unanimous support of the Queens County delegation in both parts of our legislature. We will do it because we as New Yorkers believe in the best of us,” she said.
Quinn, who has made weekly lobbying trips to Albany this year, seemed to make a personalized appeal to the undecided senators.
“It is hard to say publicly, ‘I made a mistake,’” she said “But it is the greatest gift you can give as a legislator to say, ‘I learned. I grew. I expanded.’ And we need to send a message to those legislators that we will never forget that they did the thing that was harder than just continuing to vote yes or continuing to vote no, and to those folks we will be even more grateful.”
Two Queens senators who spoke, Michael Gianaris and Jose Peralta, were elected in 2010 and replaced two Democrats, George Onorato and Hiram Monserrate, who had voted against marriage. While Onorato retired, Monserrate was successfully targeted by gay advocacy groups for his vote, as was Frank Padavan, a Queens Republican replaced by Tony Avella, a Democrat who supports marriage equality. With senators Toby Ann Stavisky and Malcolm Smith in favor, that leaves Huntley and Addabbo as the only unknowns in the borough's Senate delegation.
“I know that before the end of session, Senator Gianaris and I will push to make sure that Queens has seven, and it’s going to be a great day to know that we’re going to be able to pass marriage,” said Peralta. “We may not have been number 1, we may not have been first, but it’s going to be a great day.”
In a brief interview, Gianaris spoke with The Advocate about the content of his pitch to his undecided Queens colleagues.
“I tell them what I see in my district, what I hear from people,” he said. “What I tell them is, ‘Talk to constituents.’ I believe that the polls show that the public actually wants this and is ready for this, and they need to look inside their hearts and do what they believe is right.”
In the next 11 days constituents also will hear from advocates. The press conference announced a borough-wide canvassing effort to take place over the next two weekends, with volunteers knocking on doors across Queens. In addition, next week a series of roundtables on the importance of marriage equality will be held in Queens, the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and Rochester, the latter three areas represented by publicly undecided Republican senators also needed to reach the required 32 votes.
Using some of their most confident tones to date, other speakers including Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and New York City comptroller John Liu elaborated on the themes of diversity and majority support among state voters. Still others broached the subject, until now barely discussed in public, of what victory in New York might signal to the rest of the country and even the White House.
“I believe in my heart that we are days away from righting this wrong, and that when New York State acts, it will create tremendous momentum around the country,” said New York City public advocate Bill DeBlasio. “We know that we can’t let this inequality stand. It’s time to end it and then take that struggle forward until every one of the 50 states moves forward as well.”
Asked by a reporter what he thought a marriage equality win might mean for President Barack Obama, who supports civil unions, Congressman Crowley said that given New York’s influence and size, a victory in the third most populous state “will have a profound impact, I think, on not only our president, but I think on our country as well, and other states like California and a couple large states to follow.”
Additional speakers included Queens borough president Helen Marshall, out City Council members Daniel Drumm and Jimmy Van Bramer, and many more.
One Queens lawmaker notably absent was embattled congressman Anthony Weiner, who this week confessed to lying when he repeatedly denied he sent a photo of himself in underwear to a woman on Twitter. A swarm of reporters exited the conference room at one point to interview departing speakers about his situation in the hallway, which prompted Crowley to urge people to refocus their attention on what he called the more important issue at hand, marriage equality.