BY MICHAEL GORMLEY
ALBANY, N.Y. – Just a couple of weeks ago, the momentum to legalize gay marriage in New York appeared to be an irresistible force, teed up to reinvigorate the flagging national effort. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would devote his popular clout and considerable power to guide the first unified effort by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocates in the state to legalize same-sex marriage, and raise $1 million to support lawmakers who cast the dicey vote.
Since then, the conservative and religious opposition has struck back in a big, unexpected way.
Now the opposition has a $1.5 million fund of its own from a national group. There was even some shakiness in the ranks of gay marriage advocates, while Republican senators on the other side, rather than wilting, appear emboldened. A new “defense of marriage” bill has been introduced that wouldn’t recognize gay marriages sealed in other states.
Opponents of gay marriage are also bolstered by defeats of similar bills this year in Maryland and Rhode Island. Same-sex marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., a list unchanged since New York’s Senate rejected the measure in 2009 in a surprising blow to the national movement.
New Yorkers, according to the polls, are watching and may be wavering. And lawmakers – Senate Republicans the key among them – who would cast the potentially historic vote in the final four weeks of session are watching those polls closely.
Thursday’s Siena College poll showed 52 percent of New York voters supported gay marriage, while opposition jumped to 42 percent. The margin of error for the poll was 3.4 percent. A month ago, support in the Siena poll was four points higher and opposition was six points lower. It was a rare setback in polls that for months have repeatedly shown growing support.
Among voters opposed to gay marriage in the poll, 60 percent said they would likely vote against their legislator if he or she votes the other way. Just 49 percent of supporters of gay marriage say they would be less likely to vote for their legislator if he or she opposed it.
“If I was advising a Republican senator right now, I would say to him or her, ‘Vote your conscience,”‘ said Siena’s Steven Greenberg. “Because if you vote for it or if you vote against it, there are political benefits and political liabilities.”
A week ago, a NY1-YNN-Marist College poll posed the question differently. It gave the New Yorkers it questioned the option of supporting civil unions, a legal status less than marriage but which provides many or all of the financial and legal rights of traditionally married couples.
That poll found 50 percent of New Yorkers supported gay marriage. Its margin of error was 4.5 percent. That apparent erosion of support from earlier Marist and other polls was likely in the 25 percent who supported civil unions, a much easier vote for lawmakers pushed by opponents as a compromise.
The posturing and pressure of the last two weeks, however, also yielded some hope for advocates.
Frank MacKay, the influential chairman of the state Independence Party, told The Associated Press last week that he personally supports gay marriage. He noted the state’s third largest party opposes “discrimination and prejudice in all its myriad forms.” That could counter pressure from state Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long, who said lawmakers voting for gay marriage won’t carry his line.
For Republicans, each line is important to win in a state where Democrats hold a near 2-to-1 enrollment advantage.
And although two Republican senators signaled they are still mulling their position, that’s still short of the 32 votes needed in the Republican-led Senate. In 2009, back when Democrats held the majority – in part thanks to gay marriage campaign funding – the issue was defeated 38-24.
Even Democratic Sen. Thomas Duane of Manhattan, the bill’s sponsor, is frustrated.
Duane said even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire major contributor to the Senate GOP, hasn’t moved any Republicans. In lobbying Tuesday in Albany for gay marriage, Bloomberg called the issue “one of the defining issues of our lifetime.”
Shortly after, Senate Democratic leader John Sampson of Brooklyn predicted Republicans won’t even let the bill go to the floor for a vote.
“It doesn’t matter what the heartfelt support is,” said Duane, the Legislature’s first open gay lawmaker. “It cannot pass without Republican votes … yet none of them support my right to get married.”
Three Republicans inside the tight Senate Republican conference said they see no changed votes, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity because the conference hasn’t debated gay marriage.
“I think what’s happened is the advocates who are against gay marriage – or for marriage – have awoken,” said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, a Southern Tier Republican who supports civil unions for gay couples.
Libous is a co-sponsor with veteran Republican Sen. Martin Golden of Brooklyn of the bill that would stop New York from recognizing gay marriages from other states. The bill is also supported by Democratic Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a Bronx minister.
It was the latest example of stepped-up opposition:
– On Tuesday, a day after the National Organization for Marriage pledged $1.5 million to fight gay marriage, Cuomo said he wouldn’t bring the issue to a vote unless he felt it would pass. Even some advocates saw that as weakness.
– Two days later, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan issued an almost secular argument opposing gay marriage, in an understanding tone rare for the issue defined by polarized views.
– On Tuesday, one of the many smaller gay rights groups, Queer Rising, said Cuomo’s effort appeared more like a “political stunt.”
As for Cuomo, he said in a video message underscored by a statewide tour on ethics, gay marriage and other priorities that the Legislature “doesn’t want real ethics reform.” It was a switch from talking about a few corrupt politicians to smacking all of them with the same stick, just when he needs them to pass gay marriage.
That prompted Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos to note Cuomo was approaching the in-your-face tactics of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Even Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Cuomo’s “People First” tour was “irrelevant” to getting issues done.
“I did say to him I was personally a little hurt,” Libous said, echoing the sentiment of other senators. Libous said he’s ashamed of corrupt officials, “but I’m not a crook. When you come after everybody, it doesn’t help things.