By JEREMY W. PETERS
Published: April 16, 2009
Gov. David A. Paterson introduced a bill on Thursday to legalize same-sex marriage, vowing to personally involve himself in the legislative debate at a level that is rare for a chief executive in New York.
Throwing the weight of his office behind legislation that still faces considerable obstacles in Albany, Mr. Paterson said he would leverage the personal relationships he developed over two decades in the State Senate to see the bill voted on — and passed. The vote is expected to turn on the thinnest of margins in the Senate, and some advocates say Mr. Paterson’s direct involvement could prove pivotal.
At a news conference in Manhattan on Thursday, Mr. Paterson, a Democrat, invoked the abolitionist movement of the 1800s, the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision to argue that New York had neglected civil rights for gays and lesbians for too long. “I’m putting a stop to it,” he said. “We have a duty to make sure equality exists for everyone.”
The announcement came amid growing activity around the country on same-sex marriage: Iowa and Vermont have legalized the practice in the past month, and the New Hampshire State Senate has been debating it this week. Massachusetts and Connecticut already have gay marriage, and a campaign is under way to extend it across New England by 2012.
In New York, the State Assembly passed a same-sex marriage bill in 2007 by a vote of 85 to 61, a margin expected to widen when the measure is reconsidered this spring. But the path in the Senate is less clear: 32 votes are needed, and Democrats say about 25 of their 32 members now support it. So the outcome will most likely hinge on whether Mr. Paterson and other advocates can persuade Republican senators reluctant to break ranks with their leaders to back the bill.
Gay-rights advocates expressed confidence on Thursday that Governor Paterson’s personal involvement could make a difference, despite his dismal approval ratings and struggle to advance other aspects of his agenda. They said lawmakers sometimes feel less confined by partisan loyalty on civil rights issues like same-sex marriage.
“This isn’t something that hinges on his popularity — it’s too personal of an issue,” said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the gay-rights group pushing same-sex marriage. “It defies ordinary Albany political logic.”
Mr. Van Capelle and other advocates pointed out that in 2002, 13 Republicans joined 21 Democrats to pass a law that specifically banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. The outcome of that vote was in doubt until the last minute — an uncommon occurrence in Albany, where the leaders of the Senate and the Assembly rarely allow bills to reach the floor without being sure they will pass.
Some supporters of same-sex marriage, most notably Mr. Paterson, are pushing for a similar approach now. By forcing a vote without knowing its result, the logic goes, dubious senators might feel pressured to support the bill for fear of appearing hostile to gay rights.
Gay advocacy groups are a powerful force in Albany. The Human Rights Campaign, Gill Action Fund and Empire State Pride Agenda funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into a handful of competitive campaigns last year, helping Democrats pick up two seats to capture a majority in the Senate for the first time in more than four decades.
“It’s sort of a carrot and stick argument,” said Daniel J. O’Donnell, an assemblyman from the Upper West Side who is leading the effort in that house to shore up support for Mr. Paterson’s bill. “If you move ahead with the bill, you could use the stick and say, ‘You’re not our friend if you vote against us, and we’re going to find someone to replace you.’ ”
But Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the Senate majority leader, Malcolm A. Smith, said on Thursday that the bill would “be brought to the floor as soon as there are enough votes to pass it.”
Mr. Paterson’s role in steering the bill through Albany, which is still being worked out among his aides, legislative officials and lobbyists, is the latest in a list of personal campaigns on gay-rights issues throughout his career.
As a rank-and-file state senator in the 1980s, Mr. Paterson led the first effort to establish hate crimes laws in New York. Years later, when a hate-crimes bill passed, in 2000, it included protections for gays and lesbians at Mr. Paterson’s urging.
In 2002, as the Senate minority leader, Mr. Paterson led Democrats in rounding up enough votes to pass the law prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians. He has frequently attributed his passionate advocacy of gay rights in large part to his close relationship with a gay couple who were friends with his parents in Harlem. He still affectionately refers to the couple, now deceased, as Uncle Stanley and Uncle Ronald.
His emotional investment in the issue was on display Thursday in a 15-minute speech that placed gay marriage in the historical context of slavery, disenfranchisement of women and shunning the disabled.
“We have all known the wrath of discrimination,” said Mr. Paterson, New York’s first black governor. “We have all felt the pain and the insult of hatred. This is why we are all standing here today.”
Surrounded by some three dozen members of the state’s political establishment, including members of Congress, senior state legislators and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he added: “We wish to fulfill the dreams of those Americans, both the living and the dead, who struggled unremittingly and courageously over the past two centuries to expand those freedoms to more Americans. Often we have fallen short, but the marvel and the miracle of America is that we keep marching forward for justice.”