Monday, June 22, 2009

Gay City News > Will Paterson’s Special Session Help or Hurt Marriage Equality?

Gay City News > Will Paterson’s Special Session Help or Hurt Marriage Equality?

Will Paterson’s Special Session Help or Hurt Marriage Equality?
Published: Sunday, June 21, 2009 11:24 PM CDT

In the wake of Governor David Paterson’s call for a June 23 special session of the State Senate to resolve the two-week paralysis that followed defections from the razor-thin Democratic majority, it is not clear whether putting that chamber back to work will allow for a vote on marriage equality — or other key elements of the LGBT community’s agenda, for that matter.

The governor stepped up to quell the chaos in the Senate two days after news surfaced that Senator Thomas K. Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat leading the fight for marriage equality, sent a letter to his Democratic colleagues complaining that the issue had fallen off the radar of his conference’s leadership ever since the June 8 Republican coup. Two of Duane’s allies on Sunday said it was now up to the governor to insist that the issue be restored to the front burner, while Brooklyn Senator John Sampson, newly installed as the Democratic conference leader, voiced uncertainly as to whether marriage equality would in fact make it to the floor for a vote.

In an unusual Father’s Day appearance in the Capitol’s Red Room in Albany, the governor gave the Senate one day — June 22 — to settle its feud over which faction, the 31 Democrats or the 31 who say they support Republican leadership, will preside over the chamber’s agenda before he will call them into what he repeatedly termed “extraordinary session,” beginning June 23. Paterson emphasized that he “has no authority over the Senate when the Senate is in session,” but that he has the power to “compel” senators to go into session if they otherwise refuse. In issuing such an order, the governor establishes the agenda to be taken up, though his power to actually force votes on specific issues is unclear.

What concerns at least some advocates of a marriage equality law is the fact that Paterson said the first matters to be taken up will be “time-sensitive” pieces of legislation that require action before June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Those measures include renewal of county governments’ authority to levy certain taxes, approval of New York City’s plan to raise the local sales tax by one half of a percent, and extension of mayoral control of city public schools instituted during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure.

“We can go into extraordinary session on Tuesday and address the emergency pieces of legislation,” Paterson told reporters. “Then we can go on to address other pieces of legislation of great importance and great impact which private citizens and advocates have been discussing for this whole session, which were lost in the last two weeks of stunned disbelief over the fact that the Senate is not in session.”

Marissa Shorenstein, a spokeswoman for the governor, put the number of such time-sensitive measures at 42, and confirmed that “they are the first order of business” in any session Paterson would call.

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During his press conference, Paterson was asked specifically about same-sex marriage, and, explaining that his approach is “first things first,” said that once the matters in need of resolution before June 30 are taken care of, “there are other issues that have been obviously on people’s minds this session which I think would have been addressed in the time period that has been wasted that will go and create an agenda from there. These pieces of legislation are all important.” Asked later about another issue not on the list of 42 bills, the governor made clear he would not talk about specific measures one by one.

At least two Manhattan colleagues of Duane’s don’t think the approach that Paterson announced will lead to a vote on marriage equality.

“I don’t think anyone should assume that the Republicans will show up for a second session, once the extenders are done, to do an agenda set by David Paterson,” said Upper West Side Democrat Eric Schneiderman, a strong advocate for equal marriage rights. “The governor has got to put together a combination of substantive bills and tax extenders. It is inconceivable that the Republicans will come back. The governor really has to take responsibility for a full agenda.”

Liz Krueger, another marriage equality booster, who represents Manhattan’s East Side, concurred with Schneiderman’s analysis.

“It’s about strategy,” she said. “If you do taxes for local governments and mayoral control, if those get done, the Republicans won’t stay for more. If you want leverage, you say, ‘No, you can’t just go home if you get the mayor off your back and the counties can do taxes.’ I think it’s very important to go to the governor, the only one who can fix this situation, and say, ‘Your active list must include measures that are the true progressive goals of the party.’”

Krueger mentioned reproductive freedom and tenant protections along with marriage equality as part of that package.

Noting that 2010 is an election year, when it might be a tougher lift to pass an equal marriage bill, Schneiderman said, “Marriage is a time-sensitive bill. It may not be that easy next year. And I am confident that we have the votes now.”

Schneiderman’s confidence that there are at least 32 votes in the Senate for marriage equality mirrors Duane’s public statements over the past several weeks, predating the Senate turmoil that began on June 8. But Duane scrambled in the days after the GOP coup to maintain his leverage with his fellow Democrats and at least some Republicans whose votes he will need. Initially, he kept a low profile, at times declining to discourage speculation that he might join a new Republican majority, before finally saying that there was “zero chance” of that happening.

Then, just days later, The Daily News' Liz Benjamin reported that Duane had sent a letter to17 of his Democratic colleagues again challenging his conference’s leadership. He wrote that he was “deeply troubled by the fact that since the new leadership structure was announced, neither Senator Smith nor Senator Sampson have promised, either privately and publicly, that same-sex marriage will come to the floor and pass in the State Senate. Senator Smith and Senator Sampson have been quite vocal in their support for many progressive issues, such as strengthening tenant protections and preserving affordable housing, safeguarding reproductive health rights, power for jobs, criminal justice reform, mental health parity, and many other important issues. Yet there has been no mention of marriage equality since the June 8th coup.”

Duane went on to write, “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot support any Leader who does not demand that marriage equality come to the floor and pass in 2009. I urge that you, as a co-sponsor of the marriage equality legislation, will do the same.”

Despite that warning, Sampson, appearing June 21 on WABC’s “Eyewitness News UpClose,” said, of the marriage equality bill, “Is it going to be dealt with? I don’t know at this point… That one may not be dealt with.”

Krueger and Schneiderman appeared surprised when told of Sampson’s comments. Krueger said that she supplied Sampson and Smith, at their request, a list of 25 priority bills that she thinks should be part of any agenda if and when the Senate reconvenes. She sensed “no hostility” from Sampson about the marriage equality issue, she said, even as she acknowledged that he’s been silent about his position on the measure.

Schneiderman said it made sense to press Sampson to in turn urge Paterson to make certain that marriage equality is part of the priority package presented in the first day of any special session.

“This is very frustrating,” he said, “because we have a chance to advance a progressive agenda we care about. In a special session, the governor and only the governor has the chance to set the agenda.”

The Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s LGBT civil rights lobby, made its views known in a written statement issued on June 21.

“Not to include marriage for same-sex couples as a priority for Tuesday’s extraordinary session is an insult to millions of gay and lesbian people and their families,” said Alan Van Capelle, the group’s executive director. “We have a commitment from the Governor as recent as last night that this bill will be a top priority. We have the support for marriage equality from leaders on one side of the aisle and a commitment that marriage equality should be a vote of conscience from the leader on the other side of the aisle. We hold the Governor and the Senate to these commitments. We expect and deserve a vote on marriage equality this week.”

In April, when Paterson introduced the marriage equality bill with considerable fanfare, some advocates worried that his demand right out of the box that the measure get a vote this year was premature in terms of building support among individual senators. Now, as the Legislature’s session winds down, the ball is apparently hurtling back into the governor’s court.

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