The Politics of New York's Gay Marriage Defeat

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Democratic Senator Ruben Diaz was the only opponent to vocalize his dissent.

New Yorkers who watched the tears and emotions on display on the State Senate floor today might have concluded that the vote on same-sex marriage came down to ideology, religion, and conscience. In reality, the outcome — a lopsided 38-24 defeat for the gay rights movement — was the product of hard calculations and politics. The bottom line was this: The majority of the eight Democrats who voted "No" did so because they thought it would increase — or not harm — their chances of getting re-elected next year. And Republicans didn't see the point of sticking their necks out with a single vote for a bill that was doomed.

Given they live in one of the bluer states, anchored by a city with a long tradition of liberal activism, New Yorkers might have also assumed that their Senate would be more inclined to join the handful of other states where gay marriage is legal. But you can't make that kind of assumption when Albany politics are in play. On a macro level, the Democrats' fragile hold on the Senate — which had been under Republican control for decades — meant that any risk to even a small group of marginal Democratic members became a paramount concern. Republicans stuck together while Democrats balanced their ideological commitment to a progressive cause against their desire to prolong their power. In the end, the survival instinct triumphed.

It didn't help that the Democrats responsible for corralling the votes were less than suited to the job. Senator Tom Duane of Chelsea is the gray-haired lion of the local gay rights community. But as his meandering, choked speech on the floor suggested, his appeals to his resistant colleagues were emotional, and not aimed at their colder sense of prudence. The Senate leader, John Sampson, who endorsed the legislation only when he assumed his leadership role this year, has proven to be a skilled conciliator but not an enforcer. He and his aides were seen scrambling for votes minutes before the count. Governor Paterson is in such a weak position now that he'd have better luck herding cats than getting the Democrats to head in one direction or another. And Pat Lynch, the star Albany lobbyist for the bill, found her reach more limited in the Senate than it was in the Assembly.

It was arguably gay rights money that gave Queens Senator Joseph Addabbo a decisive edge over an incumbent Republican last year, a victory key to the Democratic takeover. But Democratic leadership and gaylobbyists couldn't prevail upon the senator, who just watched conservative voting blocs in Howard Beach, Ozone Park, and other southern parts of his Queens district elect Eric Ulrich, a 24-year-old Republican opposed to gay marriage, to the City Council. Another Democrat thought to be in the yes camp, Hiram Monserrate , opted to throw a Hail Mary to salvage a political future upended by a domestic abuse trial. Facing a primary threat from a Democrat with strong gay support, Monserrate has sought to hitch himself to evangelical voters in his Queens district.

Three other Democratic no's, Bill Stachowski in Buffalo, Darrel Aubertine in the North Country, and Carl Kruger in Brooklyn, all took their cues from opposition in their districts. Republicans, meanwhile, played it safe, avoiding any conflicts with their base and the feisty local Conservative Party. The smaller-than-expected Democratic support for the bill smothered whatever gay marriage votes-of-conscience that might have emerged within their ranks. "There was no reason to expose themselves since it was clear it was going down in flames," says a marriage equality lobbyist. Gay marriage advocates were convinced that they had brought around four or more Republicans. But the GOP never changed their message: Those votes, the party had indicated, would only materialize if at least 29 Democrats backed the bill.

So what now? Among some supporters, there's despair. "This was a stunning and dramatic defeat. There is no other way to look at it. This was very damaging to the movement," says one lobbyist. Others are fixing their eyes on glimmers of optimism. Alan Van Capelle, the head of the Empire State Pride Agenda, says he was heartened by words uttered today Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a black lawmaker from the Bronx and Westchester who spoke movingly about the painful ordeals faced by her gay brother, and other minority members. "The fact that some of the most powerful speeches came from African-American and Latinos busted the myth that people of color don't support gay and lesbian couples," he said.

Activists, who had pressed hard for a vote without certainty of victory, say they don't regret their strategy. They now know the votes they have. And they're already pasting targets on the more vulnerable Democrats in the "No" column, like Senators George Onorato from Queens, Addabbo, and Stachowski. While gay rights donors poured millions into Democratic coffers, they say their best hope still lies in preserving Democratic control, which is under serious threat in next year's races. "If Republicans get in the majority were screwed anyway. There's not a chance in hell the bill would come to the floor," says Ethan Geto, a prominent gay political strategist. Proponents don't expect a vote next year. But if they can pick up three or four votes in next year's elections and keep Democrats in power, they could be back in action in 2011.

But that's a big if. Republicans see anti-incumbent and anti-tax fervor lifting them up next year. They expect gay donors to concentrate most of their resources on ousting Democrats in primaries, rather than Republicans in generals. And it's not clear if gay donors and major national groups like the Gill Action Fund will so focus their attention and money as aggressively in New York after their money yielded a one-sided defeat. Right now, in the immediate aftermath, the overwhelming sentiment among gay activists isn't one of hope — but anger. Says Geto: "It's beyond shame. It's egregious."

Earlier: Marriage-Equality Bill Fails in State Senate 24-38
Related: Same Sex Marriage Follies: How Gay Activists Helped Turn The State Senate Blue in the First Place [NYM]