As a momentous location in the history of gay civil rights, the corner of Chrystie and Grand is unlikely to rank with the Stonewall. Yet this intersection is the noisy, traffic-choked spot where, after sniffing the plum blossoms at the opening ceremonies of the second annual Lunar New Year Flower Market in Sara D. Roosevelt Park, Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally revealed his stand on same-sex marriage.
Bloomberg had been quizzed about his views on the contentious issue for four years, and he’d managed to bob and weave for nearly the entire time. Last March, the mayor told a group of gay journalists that he believed same-sex marriage should be legal. But Bloomberg made the comment at a quasi-private dinner, and when word of his beliefs became public, the mayor backpedaled into opaque locutions about how his personal opinions were irrelevant.
Then, thanks to State Supreme Court justice Doris Ling-Cohan and the onset of a reelection campaign, Bloomberg’s view suddenly mattered a great deal. On a February Friday morning, Ling-Cohan ruled that same-sex marriages didn’t violate the state constitution, and she gave the city 30 days to begin issuing licenses. The city’s lawyers were startled; as of Thursday night, they were confidently telling the mayor they expected to win the case. Now, early Saturday afternoon, Bloomberg was in Chinatown surrounded by reporters. They weren’t there for the floral bargains. “I think anybody should be allowed to marry anybody,” Bloomberg said, unambiguously if inartfully. But: “Our corporation counsel believes that the judge’s ruling was incorrect, that the current state constitution does not permit same-sex marriages,” Bloomberg continued. “[So] we will go and appeal, and we will ask the court to expedite the appeal directly to the highest court so that people will have a right once and for all to know where they stand.”
“I told the mayor, ‘No matter what you do, you have to come out for gay marriage.’ Because I knew he was for it,” Capehart says.
The mayor’s tone was as casual as the setting, and his words were spontaneous, but the moment had an element of staging. On Saturday night, Bloomberg was scheduled to speak before 1,000 people at a Waldorf-Astoria gala for the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay-and-lesbian organization; Queer Eye’s Carson Kressley would show up dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants. Instead of ratcheting up the tension by unveiling his position from the HRC dais, the mayor wanted to allow his decision to circulate in advance, lowering the temperature Saturday night. Bloomberg’s Chinatown statement supporting gay marriage took about 90 seconds to deliver, but it capped a frantic 36 hours of behind-the-scenes debate, passionate lobbying, legal arcana, political calculation, and pure dumb luck. The sidewalk at Chrystie and Grand won’t be added to gay-tour maps. But it deserves to be remembered as a landmark in the evolution of Michael Bloomberg as a politician.
Kevin Sheekey got an early warning late Thursday night. The mayor’s campaign manager and longtime political confidant has a wide, bipartisan network. One of Sheekey’s contacts called to say that it appeared Ling-Cohan was going to open the door to gay marriage in the city.
Bloomberg and his aides realized that if she did, the mayor would instantly face enormous pressure. If Bloomberg accepted the judge’s decision permitting gay marriage, there’d be a stampede on the city clerk’s office. The mayor would be a hero to activists, but he would hand a gift to his long-shot challengers in the Republican mayoral primary. And there was no guarantee that higher courts would uphold the ruling. If, on the other hand, Bloomberg decided to appeal Ling-Cohan’s order, he’d invite the wrath of many liberals and gays, a reaction sure to be stoked by Bloomberg’s Democratic adversaries.
Besides having a head start on thinking about how to respond, the mayor caught another break Friday. Ling-Cohan’s decision became public at 11:54 a.m., minutes after Bloomberg finished his only appearance in front of reporters for the day. So the mayor was free to huddle with his advisers in City Hall. Corporation counsel Michael Cardozo and his staff pushed hard to appeal right away. “I don’t know why I need the grief,” Bloomberg said. “If I’m pro–gay marriage, then why am I saying one thing while my lawyers are fighting it in court? It doesn’t make sense.” The lawyers argued that the city had a legal obligation to defend its actions—and that, as happened in San Francisco and New Paltz last year, the lower-court decision was likely to be overturned, voiding any gay-marriage license Bloomberg might issue, especially since three courts upstate have ruled against such documents. Around three o’clock, Cablevision made the mayor’s day even more fun, springing its $600 million bid for the West Side stadium site. Yet dealing with the Dolan family’s latest tactic was relatively easy: Bloomberg dispatched Dan Doctoroff to ridicule the bid.