Since Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act and since George W. Bush championed the Federal Marriage Amendment during his re-election campaign, we have gotten used to politicians drumming up their opposition to gay marriage for nakedly opportunistic purposes.
Who could have thought that public opinion would change so quickly that, in 2009, a Governor would showcase his support for gay marriage - and hope that his numbers shoot up? This is exactly what is happening in New York, where David Paterson announced last week that he will lobby the state legislature to pass a bill legalizing gay marriage. He thus becomes the first Governor to actively push for the legalization of gay-marriage.
This development is somewhat of a surprise: Even though state Democrats promised to take up the measure during the 2008 campaign, party leaders had since sent signs that they would delay considering such legislation for at least two years.
Last fall, 3 Democratic state Senators threatened to leave the caucus and allow the GOP to keep control of the chamber; this created a chaotic situation in which Democratic leaders offered them a stunning amount of concessions before retreating. Same-sex marriage was an important issue during these negotiations: state Sen. Ruben Diaz, a hardcore homophobe, was threatening to back Republicans based on gay rights.
Democratic leaders reportedly promised Diaz that they would not introduce a gay marriage bill in this session in exchange for his support, and Diaz did say that he had been reassured enough to be comfortable staying in the caucus. And for many months, it indeed looked like gay marriage had disappeared from Albany’s political debate. (To be fair, New York had so many budgetary problems that state politicians had no time to deal with anything else.) Yet, Paterson suddenly seized the issue - and he is now showing no sign of backing down.
Yet, Paterson is now being criticized by those who say that the Governor knows full-well that Democrats do not have the votes to pass such legislation in the state Senate - and that he is endangering the gay-rights momentum for electoral gain.
Indeed, Democrats only control a narrow majority of the state Senate (32-30) and a number of socially conservative Democrats, among which there is Diaz, are sure to vote against the legislation. This does not mean that the state Senate is sure to defeat the measure: Republican lawmakers like state Sen. Thomas Morahan and state Sen. Kemp Hannon have not ruled out supporting gay-marriage - though they have indicated that they lean against it.
(The situation is similar to that in the Vermont House: As 7 Democrats voted to uphold Governor Douglas’s veto, gay-marriage proponents would not have succeeded in legalizing same-sex marriage without the support of Republican lawmakers.)
Paterson and Smith are now said to be in disagreement over whether the bill should be brought to the floor for a vote if it looks like the legislation would fail, with the Governor arguing for the affirmative and the Majority Leader responding that he will not schedule a vote until he is sure he has “32 - if not 34″ votes. Let me add that I am not convinced by the argument that a defeat in the state Senate would be a significant setback for gay-right advocates: It’s not like the issue of gay marriage is going away and that its proponents only have one shot at passing it - so a failed legislation could always be reintroduced in two years.
It is probable that Smith wants to avoid forcing reluctant Democrats to support a bill they fear will cause them trouble unless he is sure that it is worth the trouble. But such political fear does not seem to be justified: A new Siena poll shows that 53% of New Yorkers want the state Senate to pass legalize gay marriage, with only 39% oppose the move! Some details:
- Interestingly, the support is not just confined to New York City: A majority of respondents back same-sex marriage in every region of the state! 50% to 40% in upstate, 58% to 36% in NYC and 51% to 42% in the suburbs.
- Nearly a third of Republicans favor same-sex marriage - while a third of Democrats oppose it. But most interesting is the support among third-party or independent voters: 67% support gay marriage versus 24%.
- Latinos are also strongly in favor, 57% to 31% - though African-Americans oppose same-sex marriage 44% to 49%.
Public opinion has shifted decisively in favor of gay rights. Could that be enough to pressure Republican lawmakers from socially liberal districts to back the legislation?
In any case, there seems to be little basis for a backlash against politicians who supported gay marriage - unlike what Rudy Giuliani predicted over the week-end. “This will create a grass-roots movement. This is the kind of issue that, in many ways, is somewhat beyond politics,” said the former New York Mayor who is now said to be mulling a statewide run in 2010.
Unfortunately for Paterson, his decision to put himself on the front lines of the issue has done him no good so far. In fact, his numbers in that same Siena poll are lower than they were a month ago- however hard that must have been to pull off given that his approval rating had fallen to 19% in March:
- Now, only 18% say that Paterson is doing an excellent or a good job. A record 40% assess his performance as poor - up from 32% in March.
- The primary numbers are extraordinary: Paterson receives only 11% of the vote, with Andrew Cuomo at 64% and Tom Suozzi at 8%. This is the first time Siena includes Suozzi in the survey, and that’s right: Suozzi and Paterson are within the margin of error! Since November, Paterson’s result in a primary match-up has fallen month-to-month: 53% to 49% to 35% to 27% to 17% to 11%.
- The situation is just as bad for the Governor in a general election: 56% would vote for Rudy Giuliani and 29% for Paterson. And get this: Among Democrats, Paterson gets 41% and Giuliani gets 40%!
- On the other hand, Cuomo improves his lead against the Republican, leading 53% to 39%. On the other hand, Giuliani leads 50% to 31%.
- There really is no mystery as to why Paterson’s numbers are so low: 0% of respondents say that New York’s fiscal condition is excellent, and 4% say it is good. A massive 66% say it is “poor.” 63% of respondents say that Paterson’s secret budgetary negotiations contributed greatly to his declining popularity, and 54% say the same thing about the way in which he has dealt with the financial crisis.
- The news is also bad for Kirsten Gillibrand: Only 20% of respondents say they want to elect her in 2010, while 47% say they would prefer someone else (up from 37% in March and 29% in January). On the other hand, Gillibrand has improved her favorability rating - 33% to 23% instead of 26% to 20% in February.
Sure, Paterson still has a long way to go before having to face voters, but the fact is that he hasn’t even stabilized his numbers to even start dreaming of a recovery. Simply put, New York residents have given up on their Governor. Think about this: Only 11% of New York Democrats are willing to nominate the incumbent Governor, and Paterson’s lead against the little-known Suozzi is within the margin of error! Even if Cuomo decides not to run - and remember that he recently took the first steps towards a run - any Democratic candidate would be favored to defeat Paterson.
In these conditions, is it even conceivable that the Governor runs for re-election? Paterson himself answered the question this week-end. “I’m definitely running for re-election,” he said. “And, if you notice, the real desire is to have me not run, because they know, if I do, I will probably win.”