The New York state Senate managed to table its dysfunction long enough today to finally vote on a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. Both sides appeared optimistic going into the debate, which suggested that someone was in for a bad surprise - and that’s exactly what happened. At the end of the day, the vote was not even close: 8 of the 32 Democratic state Senators voted against the measure while no Republicans came through. That added up to the bill’s rejection by a 38-24 - a crushing defeat for gay rights.
This has led to a fair amount of sarcasm regarding Democrats’ inability to count votes. Yet, that might be missing the point: Earlier in 2009, Governor David Paterson had pledged to get the bill voted on whether or not the votes were there. While it does appear the bill’s sponsors had been led to believe that fewer Democrats would oppose the bill and that a number of Republicans would cross over, I doubt anyone felt that confident as to how the bill would pan out.
The debate unfolded in bizarre conditions. While many of the bill’s proponents spoke at length about their vote, only one legislator said anything about against it - state Senator Ruben Diaz, a Democrat who is the chamber’s most dedicated foe of gay rights. That means not only that not a single Republican uttered a single word, but also that the Democratic state Senators who were undecided going in did not offer a word of explanation as to their vote.
That is particularly disconcerting for two who were once on the record as supporting marriage equality. First is state Senator Hiram Monserrate, who you might remember from his insanely unethical behavior during the summer’s legislative stalemate: He voted for gay marriage while in the state Assembly, but he chose to oppose it today. Perhaps this is payback for the leadership’s decision to create a panel to investigate what should be done with Monserrate following his October domestic violence conviction. Second is state Senator Joseph Addabbo, who picked-up a GOP-held seat last November after receiving heavy financial support from gay-rights groups as he promised to help them pass same-sex marriage.
One explanation for how decisive a margin the bill failed by is that there was an avalanche effect, whereby an early shocker in the alphabetical roll call (Democrat Joseph Addabbo voting ‘no’) led other publicly undecided senators who were preparing to support the bill to quickly back away. As such, Mike Signorile is hearing that as many as 5 Dems and 5 GOPers had pledged their support. I think this is partly right. The bill’s sponsors had long said that GOP votes might help them secure a majority, but only if Democrats could come close on their own; No Republican and no conservative Democrat would want to vote for this bill if it was going to fail anyway. Furthermore, the bottom line is that all 16 senators who were undecided as the roll call began ended up voting ‘no’.
But this certainly does not account for everything. For one, getting as many as 10 senators who are publicly undecided to vote in bloc is an inherently unstable proposition - and Democratic leaders must have known that.
Particularly bizarre is this video of Republican state Senator Jim Alesi. While he had been expected to vote “yes” but most whip-counters, Alesi voted “no” and that footage makes him look like he’s profoundly distraught as he prepares to announce his decision. While this could be due to the fact that he is trying to make up his mind, it looks to me that he had already settled before Addabbo’s vote, which came mere moments before Alesi’s. That a fellow GOP state Senator gives Alesi a pat just moments before he utters “no” suggests to me another explanation: There seems to have been more of an effort by GOP leaders to impose party discipline than had been anticipated.
Second, that this vote is occurring in the aftermath of NY-23’s special election is bound to have influenced the results. You surely remember that in the eyes of conservative activists Dede Scozzafava’s primary sin was to have voted to legalize same-sex marriage in the state Assembly; that helped fuel the fire against her and it contributed to organized national groups’ decision to move into the district. That must have frightened some senators into thinking a primary challenger could gain a lot of traction if they vote “yes;” in fact, state Senator Vincent Leibell (a Republican who was listed as undecided going into the vote) already does face a primary challenge from the right.
Proponents wanted to get people’s vote on the record so they would know who to target next year, but they surely were not expected this big a defeat. That probably severely Paterson’s hopes of getting some traction out of his decisive role in bringing the bill to the floor. Had it passed, he would have had a major issue to campaign on next year; even if it had narrowly gone down, he could have correctly pointed out that he exercised major leadership. Now, the most likely scenario is that progressive groups’ frustration towards Albany only grows - and with it their desire to get a new start with the entire state government.
What does all of this mean for the prospects of gay marriage going forward? Today’s vote obviously kills the bill’s prospects in this legislature, and whether it comes for a vote in the upcoming one will obviously depend on whether Democrats even keep control of the chamber: Republicans are looking to contest seats they lost in 2008, and it wouldn’t take them much to reverse their 32-30 deficit. On the other hand, one of the Democrats who voted no (Monserrate) is unlikely to survive next year’s Democratic primary and others could face challenges as well - not just because of this vote, but more generally because of the stunning mess that the chamber has been all year.
Interestingly, the same pattern played out this week as on November 3rd, when the blow of Maine reversing the same-sex marriage legislation was softened by a series of advances for gay rights. Now, New York’s vote coincided with Washington’s domestic partnership bill coming into effect, with California preparing to electing its first gay Speaker and with Georgia electing its first LGBT African-American legislator (Simone Bell) in a special election. Most significantly, the District of Columbia’s city council voted this week to legalize gay marriage.