Prominent African-American elected officials including Newark Mayor Cory Booker slammed the suggestion from New Jersey governor Chris Christie to put same-sex marriage to a public vote, while the governor, legislative leaders, and advocates appeared to be girding for a protracted confrontation on Wednesday.
The Star-Ledger reports that Booker, a Democrat who has refused to perform marriages at Newark City Hall until all couples have the right, stood in "unprecedented public divergence" with the Republican governor on Wednesday when he warned that minority rights should not be subjected to a majority vote.
"I shudder to think what would have happened if the civil rights gains, heroically established by courageous lawmakers in the 1960s, were instead conveniently left up to popular votes in our 50 states," said the mayor in a statement. During a news conference reported by the Associated Press, he echoed Senate sponsors of the bill who opposed the referendum idea the previous day.
"Dear God, we should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote, to be subject to the sentiments, the passions of the day," said Booker. "No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and the sentiments of the majority. This is the fundamental bedrock of what our nation stands for."
Christie called for the Democratic-controlled legislature to put the issue to a public vote on Tuesday at a town hall in Bridgewater while a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the marriage equality bill was under way in Trenton. The panel advanced the bill in an 8-4 party-line vote, but Christie also reiterated his promise to veto the measure, which threw into doubt the prospect of garnering enough Republican support for an override.
Speaker Sheila Oliver, the first African-American woman to lead the New Jersey Assembly, expressed offense at additional comments from Christie on Tuesday that civil rights advocates in the South during the 1950s and '60s "would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets."
"Governor, people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method," she said, according to the AP. "It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans."
A spokesman for Speaker Oliver told The Advocate that the Assembly is expected to take up the bill soon.
On Wednesday, the AP reported that Christie defended his referendum idea as a compromise to "find another pathway where everybody can have a chance to get what they want." Democrats have expressed hope that he would allow Republican lawmakers to vote their conscience on the issue, but the governor sounded insistent.
"We all know how this movie is going to end," he said. "If they pass the bill, it's going to be vetoed. If they attempt to override the veto, it will be sustained. So, I'm trying to give them an alternative movie."
A Christie spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
Senate president Steve Sweeney, who abstained from voting two years ago but made marriage equality the number 1 priority this session, told The New York Times that Christie suggested the referendum in desperation over the bill's growing bipartisan momentum. Senators learned about the proposal in the midst of the judiciary committee hearing, one day after the governor nominated a gay African-American man to the state supreme court.
"This was panic, pull cord now, because he was going to see some of his members starting to vote for this," he said. Sweeney called the referendum suggestion "just a creation, an option for him to try to tightrope-walk this issue."
The Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest newspaper, called the referendum a "political dodge" by Christie, a Mitt Romney surrogate with a national profile, in an editorial Thursday. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that 52% of state voters support same-sex marriage, although Christie personally opposes it and supports civil unions.
"It's nothing but sad that the governor is playing this political game," wrote the newspaper. "He is ambitious for national office and knows that Republicans won't abide a candidate on the ticket who supports gay marriage. On the other hand, he wants to contain the damage in New Jersey, where polls show most voters support marriage equality."
Advocates, meanwhile, seemed undeterred and ready for the long haul. The current legislative session ends in January 2014, which gives them two years to work on achieving a veto override. The marriage equality bill died in the Senate in 2010 with a 20-14 vote.
"Our entire plan this go-round has included the assumption of a veto," said Garden State Equality chairman Steven Goldstein. "We have a methodical plan: First pass the bill. Then endure the veto. Then work on an override vote."
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