Earlier this week, Governor Paterson expressed his intention to introduce legislation legalizing gay marriage, despite the possibility of its failure in the State Senate. Though Democrats hold a 32–30 advantage there, at least four Democratic senators have said they won’t vote for the bill, and no Republicans have publicly backed it either. With Paterson set to make his official announcement tomorrow, we talked with Empire State Pride Agenda Executive Director Alan Van Capelle about the bill’s prospects and New York’s place in the marriage-equality debate.
Governor Paterson will submit same-sex marriage legislation tomorrow despite the possibility that the votes may not be there. Do you support his strategy?
Well, look, first of all, Governor Paterson supported the issue of marriage equality even before it was popular, and he’s arguably one of the nation’s leading advocates on this issue, and we can’t thank him enough for his leadership. I don’t think it’s ever a wrong time to advance fundamental rights for New Yorkers, and we plan to work with the governor to make marriage equality a reality here in New York. And I think we could win the votes this May and June so it becomes law by summer.
How many votes do you think you have right now?
We are closer than most people think, but not quite there yet.
Do you have a number?
Well, I can’t give away all of our secrets. I think we’re closer than most people think and we’re not there yet.
Today, Senator Duane said that some Republicans have assured him privately that they’ll vote for the bill, but none of them have said so publicly. Do you know of any Republican senators that would support it?
You know, not one piece of LGBT civil-rights legislation has ever become law in New York State without the votes of Republicans and Democrats, and I believe that the marriage-equality bill will become law because of votes of Republicans and Democrats. We have learned not every Democrat is right on our issues, and not every Republican is bad on our issues. And so I am convinced that we will win Republican votes in the State Senate.
Is that optimism or do you know of specific senators at this point who are willing to vote for it?
I will say that I have had some extraordinarily personal and meaningful conversations with Republican state senators, and unlike the tax bill, the budget, or a bottle bill, this is a very personal issue to many senators, including Republican senators.
What’s your pitch to legislators that are either against the bill or are on the fence right now? How are you appealing to them?
I think most senators don’t wake up every single day thinking about same-sex marriage. Most senators don’t understand yet that there are 1,324 rights and responsibilities attached with a New York State marriage license. And when we get the opportunity to educate them about the challenges facing same-sex couples who aren’t able to have access to a New York State marriage license, and when those couples have an opportunity to talk to those legislators, their senators, directly, and when senators find out that a majority of New Yorkers support marriage equality, that the New York AFL-CIO supports marriage equality, and that every single statewide official supports marriage equality, then I think this becomes an easier pitch to the legislator. But there’s work to be done, and I can tell you that, following the decision in Iowa and the votes in Vermont, we have seen an unprecedented amount of people sign up for our Equality and Justice Day on April 28, to the point where we no longer have capacity in the convention center, and had to shut down registration.
What if the vote fails? Do you think that would set back the cause? How bad of a defeat would that be?
I don’t think the vote fails. I mean, I will say that I’m a conservative guy when it comes to numbers-counting in the legislature, and I tend to be optimistic in every other aspect of my life except vote counting. And from what I know today, I believe our chances of winning a marriage equality bill by May or June of this year are the best they have ever been. I think the Assembly will take up the bill sooner than later, and I think people will be surprised to see the support that exists around the state and in their home districts for this measure.
Is Chuck Schumer, who recently came out in support of gay marriage, doing any arm twisting on your behalf?
I believe it’s not the job of any elected official to twist arms to win votes on marriage equality. It’s our community and our supporters’ job to make the case for why we deserve equal rights, no more, no less. And I think Senator Schumer is the perfect illustration of many New Yorkers who have journeyed from believing that marriage is about one man and one woman, to believing that gay and lesbian couples should be entitled to civil unions, to believing that civil unions is an unequal status to the rest of society, and marriage is the only vehicle by which gay and lesbian couples can have the same status as heterosexual couples.
A recent Quinnipiac poll had 41 percent of New Yorkers supporting full same-sex marriage rights and about a third of New Yorkers supporting civil unions only. Were you disappointed by that figure?
No, I think that’s a 1999 poll for a 2009 conversation. I was disappointed that Quinnipiac decided to poll on a policy issue that doesn’t exist in Albany. The framework that they described was one where the debate in Albany is between status quo, civil unions, and marriage equality. That is not the debate taking place in Albany. The debate in Albany is status quo or marriage equality for same-sex couples. No talk of civil unions whatsoever. And so I was optimistic when I saw that the largest percentage of those three were for marriage equality. And you could hypothetically suggest that if you split the civil-union number up into two equal parts, and apportioned them to status quo and to marriage equality, we’d still come out on top.
Do you think that gay marriage will be legalized in a number of other states this year in addition to New York?
Despite what opponents to marriage equality are saying, I do not think there is this gathering storm and wave of states ready to enact marriage-equality laws across the nation, although I hope that they would. But I do believe that the eyes of the country are now squarely fixed on New York, and New Jersey, and New Hampshire, as the next possible locations where we could see marriage equality become the law.