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.
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.