"We start the battle today," declared New York state senator Ruben Diaz Sr., speaking mostly in Spanish to a crowd in Manhattan estimated by one NYPD officer to number 7,000, although it seemed considerably smaller. Despite high humidity and 90-plus-degree temperatures, the Democratic lawmaker and Pentecostal minister from the Bronx was dressed in jeans, a nylon windbreaker emblazoned with his name and office, and a white cowboy hat with a black band that read, "I (Heart) Jesus."
The hat came in handy when the raindrops, which had been threatening all morning and early afternoon, seemed to finally become palpable the moment Diaz took the podium at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza just steps from United Nations headquarters. Less than four miles south at the city clerk's main office, and throughout the other four New York City boroughs and all across the state, hundreds of same-sex couples celebrated the first day of the new marriage equality law with weddings, but the senator and other rally organizers expressed a different vision at their own protests, held under the slogan of "Let the People Vote" in Manhattan, Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo.
Their intention, in the words of Bishop Joseph Mattera from the Christ Covenant Coalition and senior pastor of the Resurrection Church, is "to force politicians to recognize the voice of the people." He said from the small stage, "We have put them on notice today, that if they sell their votes, 'We will vote you out.'" Attendees waved their thumbs down in response to symbolize ejection.
The rally, which followed a march up Third Avenue from the Midtown office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, vented outrage toward the governor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and even New York archbishop Timothy Dolan, who some claimed led a weak fight against the bill. Mostly, however, speakers denounced the Republican state Senate leadership and four members of that conference who they say betrayed them by providing the decisive votes for the marriage equality bill last month.
"Our first step is to demonstrate that it was a big mistake to vote for gay marriage, especially in the Republican Party," said Maggie Gallagher, chair of the National Organization for Marriage, in an interview after she addressed the rally. "Let's take that first step and see how far we can take this."
Gallagher repeated the promise that
her group would spend $2 million to unseat the four senators in 2012,
the beginning of what she called a "four-year plan." Subsequent parts
would involve moving the state legislature, including the solidly
Democratic Assembly, to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn the
marriage equality law in two consecutive sessions before it could head
to voters for consideration.Such a
plan could not come to fruition until the 2016 ballot, and a series of
polls already shows that a majority of New York voters favor marriage
equality, but Gallagher and opponents of the new law expressed
confidence they could win a referendum years from now. Then again, New
York, which has no voter-led initiative process, unlike states including
California, offers them no other choice.
"I'm confident that we
could win a marriage amendment," said Gallagher, who claimed that some
polls supported her view, although she could not provide additional
information. "It's going to be a big push to do what we are proposing to
do. Step number 1 is demonstrating, especially to the Republican Party,
it was a really bad idea to vote for gay marriage."
said she was most disappointed in Mark Grisanti, the freshman Republican
senator from Buffalo who joined James Alesi, Roy McDonald, and Stephen
Saland in voting for the marriage equality bill. She also said that
Senate majority leader Dean Skelos "bears some responsibility" for
allowing the bill to come to the floor because legislative leaders have
the power to block votes; she noted that Senate majority leader Michael
Gronstal of Iowa continues to thwart NOM's goal of a constitutional
amendment to overturn marriage equality in that state.
Diaz seconded the criticism of Skelos and the four Republican senators,
telling reporters afterward, "I'm talking with Michel Long," the leader
of the Conservative Party of New York State, who has vowed to hold his party's influential endorsement from senators who supported marriage equality. "We're working
together. Let's see what happens. Many things could happen."
rejected the alternative thesis that voting for marriage equality could
prove politically advantageous for the Republican Senate majority,
saying, "I don't think so. We'll see in 2012. That's Mayor Bloomberg
sending $10,300 and giving his money."
Bloomberg and other
marriage equality advocates, including software entrepreneur Tim Gill,
already have rewarded the Senate Republicans for their votes with the
maximum allowable campaign contributions. Senator Diaz likewise mocked
the contributions in his address to the crowd, where he also singled out
Nelson Castro and Gustavo Rivera, fellow Latino lawmakers from the
Bronx, for their votes for marriage equality.On the other hand, Diaz and the organizers made an exhaustive display of avoiding direct attacks against gay and lesbian people. Each of them gave statements to "disassociate," in the words of Bishop Mattera, themselves from the Westboro Baptist Church, which sent a small contingent of protesters with the familiar "God hates fags" signs to picket marriages outside the city clerk's offices in the five boroughs.
"We're not down with that," said Diaz through his interpreter. "That is from the devil," he said of the group's protests at military funerals.
The dramatic denunciations rang somewhat hollow as organizers, mostly representing Hispanic and African-American clergy members and their parishioners, warmly welcomed a few Orthodox Jewish protestors with virulently antigay messages. One display labeled with the "Jewish Political Action Committee" included two life-size stuffed canines and a warning that marriage equality would lead to unions between men and dogs. "Mazel tov!" it said ruefully, while a passerby in favor of marriage equality declared the message an insult to her Maltese.
Then there is the immediate attempt to revoke the new marriages, where Diaz promised to announce a legal challenge this week. He claimed in an interview that the waivers granted to bypass the state's mandatory 24-hour waiting period and allow same-sex couples to marry on Sunday did not meet the conditions set forth in the state's domestic relations law.
"What they're doing today is illegal," he alleged, citing a need for the marriage parties to prove "imminent death," "terrible hardship" and "emergency" in order to receive a waiver. "Everyone who had to be granted a 24-hour-waiver was illegal."
Asked about the claim later that evening at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor Bloomberg officiated the wedding of two top aides, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn responded "Senator who?" and looked visibly annoyed at the mere mention of Diaz's name.
"We had the Office of Court Administration and some of the highest-ranking judges in the state of New York oversee these waivers," said the out lesbian lawmaker. "What's happening here is opponents, people whose desire is to lessen other people's human rights, people whose desire is to take things away from people they've never met, want to rain on everybody's parade. And there's nothing they can do. They're grasping at legal straws."