James Alesi, the first Republican state senator to announce he would vote yes for the marriage equality bill in New York, said that he hoped his support would open a new conversation in his party and for that matter with President Barack Obama, who continues to evolve on the issue.
"I believe very strongly that it is OK to be Republican and embrace equality," said the veteran lawmaker from Rochester after a noon rally for marriage equality outside the state capitol, where he received loud applause and chants of "Thank you, Jim!"
Senator Alesi and his colleague Roy McDonald announced their support for the marriage equality bill last week during two days of breakthroughs that brought the proposal to where it stands now, within one Republican vote of passing the state senate. No Republican senator supported the bill when it failed the then Democratic-controlled Senate two years ago in a vote that visibly pained Alesi, the first member of his party in the alphabetical roll call.
"I was actually a yes vote two years ago," he said. "The bill was brought to the floor at the worst possible time for passage. They didn't have the votes for passage on the other side."
Alesi, long thought to be supportive, called the 2009 vote a "political effort" by Democrats to win seats by driving moderate Republican senators like him to take a difficult vote. While he can also anticipate repercussions in 2012, such as the loss of an influential endorsement from the Conservative Party of New York State, he said he has won "new friends" in the LGBT community, where he suggested his reelection campaign would focus not on his support for marriage equality but on the related conservative principles of freedom and economic opportunity.
"I'm counting on it [LGBT support], but at the end of the day we also recognize that people in the LGBT community are taxpayers," he said. "They want jobs. They want a strong economy and they want the things that everyday life provides and in some cases doesn't provide."
The conservative case for marriage equality has been argued in the open this year in New York, where Republicans and figures linked to them, including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, have contributed more than half the estimated $2 million raised to pass the bill. Barbara Bush, the daughter of former president George Bush, filmed one of the earliest videos for the Human Rights Campaign, and Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign manager who came out last year, has lobbied for the bill in Albany.
"It will have to be a turning point because New York will be the launch pad of equality across the nation. and that's not going to happen overnight," said Alesi. "There will be some places that will embrace it more quickly than others, but as more and more people start to realize, if we can demonstrate that this actually is a benefit to the state of New York and to the people that live here, then we can demonstrate that benefit across the country."
If the bill passes the Senate, which many observers expect it could as early as Wednesday, it would be the first time a Republican-controlled legislative body has passed a marriage equality bill. Alesi credited Senate majority leader Dean Skelos for promising last year not to block a vote outright and allowing his members to conference the measure according to their consciences.
"He is a Republican leader of the Senate majority, and for him to allow us to come to this point shows that even though he personally is opposed to this measure, it shows that politically we can separate politics if we want to, and we have to," said Alesi.
Whether or not the bill comes to a vote this session depends on the resolution of other big-ticket legislative items and on broader religious exemptions to the Marriage Equality Act being negotiated between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the senate Republicans. The negotiations are expected to generate language for chapter amendments that the Democratic-controlled Assembly, which passed the bill for the fourth time last week, would also need to approve. Skelos said his conference would decide whether to vote on the bill and any amendments after the exemption language is finalized.
The question of whether another Republican, or more likely a few, to provide political cover, would vote for the bill already seemed decided for Alesi. In fact, he said he could identify more than a handful of colleagues who would support the bill if not for the political calculations of trying to grow a slim 32-30 majority in 2012 with a conservative base of voters.
"I would go out on a limb and say that right now I would bet that there are probably seven or eight Republicans who in their hearts would support this with no difficulty but are concerned about losing the right wing in their next political effort and they would then lose their next election," he said. "It's a political world. At some point you just balance whether the need to get reelected is more important than the need to vote on something you truly believe in."
If the experience of others can prove persuasive, more than 70 Republicans in state legislatures have voted for equality and not one has lost his or her seat because of the stance. On the other hand, an exchange between Alesi and two women who approached him outside the capitol to express their "disappointment" Tuesday illustrates the challenges.
"Where do you think this is going to lead?" the women demanded to know. "Marriage with a dog or maybe with 15 other women? Where does it end?"
"I think that's absurd," Alesi replied, as he politely explained that the discussion ends with the bill. The Marriage Equality Act would legalize civil marriage with exemptions for religious organizations that do not wish to solemnize same-sex weddings or offer their facilities for the purpose, in addition to the as-yet-unannounced amendments under negotiation.
Due to the pressures, Alesi predicted that if the marriage equality bill becomes the final piece of business before the legislature, some of the members would excuse themselves from the vote rather than go on the record. He said he believed the bill would still receive the 32 votes needed to pass the Senate.
"I suspect that if we get through rent control and property tax cap and this is the next-to-the-last thing to do, you'll probably see a lot fewer members stay in the chambers," he said. "Some of them will be on the thruway by the time a vote comes up. They'll be absent for the vote. I believe you'll see a lot of members that won't vote."
Alesi, however, plans to be present for any vote, in addition to traveling around the country to put the issue on the agenda for Republican presidential candidates in 2012.
"I think if we're going to have a year when presidential candidates are going to be talking about things that are important to America, I believe this is one of them," he said.
His sentiment also applies to President Obama, who is scheduled to address gay Democrats at a high-dollar fund-raiser in Manhattan Thursday, potentially after New York becomes the sixth and most populous state to legalize same-sex marriage, not including California, where Proposition 8 repealed marriage equality in 2008.
"I think if a Republican state senator who comes from conservative roots can support marriage equality, and I will be running in the same year as President Obama, President Obama can support marriage equality, and if he doesn't support marriage equality, then that would be a major disappointment," said Alesi.