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First Washington, Now New Jersey Braces for Marriage Showdown

First Washington, Now New Jersey Braces for Marriage Showdown

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New Jersey Senate president Stephen Sweeney admits that he made a "mistake." That's how he describes his behavior two years ago, when he abstained from voting on the marriage equality bill and contributed to the 20-14 defeat of the measure. The Democrat blames his move on politics, where he supported the substance of the bill but bowed to the political winds of his conservative South Jersey district.

"I'm a big boy, I made a mistake," said Sweeney in an interview with The Advocate. While confirming reports that he is considering a run for U.S. Senate in 2014, he insisted his recent sponsorship of a same-sex marriage bill stems from a motivation to remedy an injustice, not career aspirations. "I am going to correct the mistake, and I am going to do what's right for the people that were wronged," he said. "That's all this is about."

If successful this session, Sweeney and other leaders of the Democratic-controlled state legislature could close a bumpy chapter for the state's nine million residents. The saga began when the Supreme Court of New Jersey issued a decision in 2006 that prompted the legislature to pass a civil unions bill later that year. A state commission concluded the civil unions law created a "second-class status" in 2008, but a lame-duck legislative drive for marriage equality failed in 2010 despite a promise from outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine to sign the bill. Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican who succeeded him, does not support marriage equality, a factor that distinguishes him from the Democratic governors of New York, Washington and Maryland, all Catholics like Christie, who have pushed for the legislation. As of Monday, Washington appeared to be on the verge of becoming the seventh state plus the District of Columbia with marriage equality, after the last of the required votes emerged in the senate.

Sweeney said that last time, he agreed to be one of the 21 votes that would pass the bill, but in a "political calculation," he refused to provide a yes vote for any bill that failed. When Gov.-elect Christie prevailed on five Republican senators to retract their support, it became apparent the legislation could not pass, and so Sweeney abstained, the equivalent of a no vote.

Fast forward two years, and Sweeney believes his chamber has enough votes to pass the bill "easily" next month. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing and vote on the bill Tuesday, and he expects a successful floor vote on the bill on February 13. The vote would mark the first time a marriage equality bill passes either chamber of the New Jersey legislature.

"It's going to pass," said Sweeney. "That's how confident I am. It will pass the senate on the 13th."

Sweeney also expressed optimism about prospects in the general assembly led by Speaker Sheila Oliver, but passing the bill represents only part of the battle. Legislators need to gather the two-thirds majority required to override a potential veto, should Christie exercise that option after the bill reaches his desk.

"We're getting there," Sweeney said of the ongoing effort in his chamber. "This is an enormous lift." Democrats control the senate 23-16, with one open seat, and Sweeney said it could be possible to get support from as many as 22 members of his conference. He said that Republican interest in the bill is "moving," although he declined to name prospective GOP votes except Sen. Jennifer Beck, who has already announced her support. "I don't want any more headaches for them than they're going to get," he said.

Whether lawmakers will have to override a veto depends on how Christie responds, and his statements and actions in the last few weeks have left Trenton observers guessing. As recently as June, following the passage of marriage equality in New York, the governor told NBC's Meet The Press that he was "not a fan" of same-sex marriage and would not sign a bill like the one in the neighboring state. However, last week he expressed a new openness on the matter, saying "We'll see what happens" when asked about the bill during a radio interview with WCBS 880. On Monday, Christie stunned observers again when he nominated Bruce Harris, an African-American Republican mayor, to be the first openly gay Supreme Court justice. The governor said during the press conference that the nomination did not signal a change in his position on same-sex marriage, however, and Garden State Equality chairman Steven Goldstein, who praised the nomination, cautioned that it would be "unwise" to draw any conclusions from the development.

Sweeney said the governor could pursue "many avenues" if lawmakers present him with a bill as expected. He could veto the bill outright, issue a conditional veto, or just let it become law by taking no action and allowing the 45-day review period to expire. He could also sign the bill, although Sweeney considered that the least likely outcome.

"I really don't anticipate that, but what I would hope is he would allow his senators and assembly people on his side of the aisle to vote their conscience," he said. "If not, let it become law, respect that people have been denied their civil rights, and that they're respecting your beliefs, as far as marriage between a man and a woman. We're not violating either side."

A spokesman for Christie said the governor would allow the legislative process to unfold and review any legislation that reaches his desk in accordance with the 45-day period. The burden for passing the bill rests on legislators, however.

"What the governor did say is that he didn't believe there were majorities in the legislature that would allow the bill to be forwarded to his desk," said deputy press secretary Kevin Roberts. "But if that were to occur, he would review the legislation just as he would any other piece of legislation."

Compared to 2009, when the governor-elect told a group of New Jersey Republicans that he would return a same-sex marriage to lawmakers with a "big red veto across it," his recent comments mark a shift. Even the National Organization for Marriage took notice, blasting his new statements as "troubling" in an alert to followers last week and threatening to spend $500,000 to support lawmakers who oppose the bill and challenge those who vote for it.

The situation would seem to put the popular Christie, often mentioned as a 2016 presidential hopeful or even a prospective 2012 vice presidential pick, in an awkward position as national polls show support for same-sex marriage increasing rapidly among Americans. Sweeney dismissed the suggestion of a political setup, and argued that the governor could find justification enough in a new Quinnipiac poll that shows a majority of New Jersey voters (52%) support marriage equality for the first time.

"The point is, there's avenues around here where he can say, 'I oppose it' and it still become law because it was the right thing to do," said Sweeney. "The governor's made his position clear. We're hoping he has the compassion to recognize this is a civil rights issue. Nothing more, nothing less."

In addition, Sweeney believes that advocates have bolstered their case for the bill by including strong religious exemptions modeled on the New York law. He said that some Roman Catholic and conservative Jewish leaders exerted "enormous pressure" on lawmakers in 2010, but this time, "We're acknowledging and trying to be as respectful as we can of religious communities. We don't want this in any way or form to become a matter of religion. We want the focus to be exactly on what it is, which is a civil rights issue."

Unlike in New York and Washington, where governors Andrew Cuomo and Christine Gregoire reached out to Catholic archbishops, New Jersey, where 40% of the population identifies as Catholic, lacks a chief executive willing to play ambassador. However, Sweeney, a Catholic, offered assurance that outreach would be underway. "We heard them the last time," he said of religious critics.

In addition to the governor's ambivalent statements about a veto and the promising new poll, Sweeney said that four Republican senators' support for the marriage equality bill in New York is "probably one of the biggest changes" since 2010. "It was OK for Republicans to vote for something like this and they're still standing, though they're being threatened, I think that had a big impact," he said. Campaign finance filings released last week showed that the New York Republicans increased their fund-raising significantly in the six months following the vote.

Paul Singer and Daniel Loeb, two of the hedge-fund managers who contributed more than $1 million to help finance a substantial portion of the New York campaign, have close ties to Christie. Their connection has raised the question of whether the same wealthy Republican donors who proved instrumental in New York could influence the outcome in nearby New Jersey. Sweeney said that although he was not aware of any efforts, he "wouldn't turn down any help."

Regarding his own relationship with the governor, Sweeney said the two of them "get along fine." Last June, the senate president called Christie a "bully" and a "rotten prick," among many other things, in an interview at the height of the budget battle. He regrets speaking to the reporter before he cooled off, and he predicted that his "very good relationship" with the governor, never one to mince words himself, would promote productive discussion about marriage equality when the time arrives.

There's just one formality.

"We've got to pass it first. Then we'll have a conversation," he said. "It's coming. It's coming now."
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