The mayor and his aides were being bombarded by e-mails and phone calls from friends, activists, and lobbyists. Bloomberg fielded several messages from Jonathan Capehart, who occupies a unique place in the mayor’s universe. Capehart was an editorial writer at the Daily News, then went to work for Bloomberg News before joining Bloomberg’s 2001 campaign as a policy adviser. He currently works at corporate PR giant Hill & Knowlton. Capehart also happens to be gay, and once took the mayor to a weekly gay night at a downtown restaurant.
“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. “And I said, ‘If there’s a time to announce it, this is it, especially if you’re going to appeal.’ ”
Sheekey reached out to the leaders of gay-rights groups, surveying their reactions until well past midnight Friday. Bloomberg, too, was making frequent use of his phone and his e-mail to trade ideas. At around 10 P.M., he ducked out of a dinner party at home in honor of his girlfriend’s birthday to BlackBerry a note to mayoral press secretary Ed Skyler: “I just thought of something!” Before Judge Ling-Cohan’s ruling, Skyler drafted a speech for the HRC gala with no mention of gay marriage; Bloomberg had some rewriting suggestions. Yet Skyler went to sleep still uncertain what the mayor would decide.
In their most conspiracy-minded moments, the mayor’s aides suspected Judge Ling-Cohan of timing her ruling to bump up against the Human Rights Campaign event and force Bloomberg into a corner. As the hours ticked away, some of Bloomberg’s counselors proposed that the mayor tell the human-rights dinner’s guests that he needed more time to study the ruling. By Saturday morning, though, Bloomberg dismissed this gambit as disingenuous: While preparing to go to Chinatown, he’d made up his mind. He was for legal same-sex marriage—and a legal appeal.
“It’s not a political calculation. It’s the mayor doing what’s in the best interests of the city,” Skyler says. “What he doesn’t want is to create another San Francisco, where people get licenses that are nullified and all you’ve done is a PR stunt.”
Yet his advisers knew Bloomberg’s “yes, but” stance would be a hard sell. So right after the mayor made his Chinatown comments, he phoned gay leaders to explain his reasoning. Bloomberg spoke to Alan Van Capelle as the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda was putting on a tuxedo for his twin sister’s wedding. “Two hours before I signed my sister’s wedding license,” Van Capelle says, “my mayor was telling me on the phone that I can’t get one. She now has 1,800 more rights than I do, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
Bloomberg’s dial-a-thon was unusual, made rarer by the fact that his aides alerted reporters to the conciliatory calls. None of which averted name-calling from the left—Manhattan state senator Tom Duane labeled Bloomberg a “coward”—and the right: Republican mayoral contender Tom Ognibene went with “spineless.” But otherwise Bloomberg managed to sow two days of confusion, mute the mainstream gay reaction—he was both cheered and booed at the HRC dinner—and push any decision, or marriages, away from City Hall’s steps. When Democratic mayoral aspirants Gifford Miller and Freddy Ferrer denounced Bloomberg as a hypocrite, the mayor undercut them by pointing out that Eliot Spitzer has the identical position, and that Miller and Ferrer don’t criticize Spitzer. By Tuesday, the uproar seemed to sputter to a tidy conclusion with the stamp of approval that City Hall cared about deeply: a Times editorial backing the mayor’s decision.
Not that anything’s been solved. Gay marriage is one of those moral and policy mazes, like abortion or stem-cell research, that seem to have been designed by a mischievous political deity to torment elected officials. Whenever the issue stabilizes, along comes an unexpected twist that forces a straddling mayor or senator to further calibrate his or her position. Bloomberg says that if the Court of Appeals rules against gay marriage, he’ll lobby the Legislature to change state law. Gay leaders vow to hold him to the promise. Last week, activists were angered again by a Times story saying city lawyers had cited the Book of Genesis in the original brief arguing against same-sex marriage. Bloomberg, flanked by nine dogs after a City Hall press conference promoting animal adoption, snappishly disputed the story. “The facts are wrong,” he said. “The brief was only quoting the original law.”
The exchange was a hint of how the gay-marriage issue will shadow him. But at least for one hectic weekend, Bloomberg got both the principle and the politics right.