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Legislative Chicken

by David King on May 11, 2011

This week the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of breakaway Democrats who wanted to find a way to enjoy the perks of being in the majority without actually being in it, released a study showing the financial benefits gay marriage could bring to New York. It was basically a rehash of a study released by former New York City comptroller Bill Thompson years ago. Despite being a rehash, the report got some attention. The IDC should thank its lucky stars.
You see, the IDC has been struggling to find its voice since forming at the beginning of the year. They’ve hit the big issues (note the sarcasm, thank you): the looming threat to all our youth, Four Loco; the health dangers of doctors who wear ties; and, most important, the hot debate over the state vegetable.
They have become, in the eyes of most Democrats, a bit of a joke. Their surprising willingness to vote along Republican lines on issues like whether the lieutenant governor should be able to vote as a tiebreaker in certain circumstances, and their ability to win perks from the majority despite being in the minority, has done some damage to their “independent” image.
The group of four, made up of Sens. Jeff Klein, Diane Savino, David Carlucci and David Valesky, is seen by many as a vanity project of Klein, who served as deputy majority leader while Democrats held the majority. During the infamous Senate coup, Klein was rumored to be negotiating a deal with Republicans, one that would have put him in power. And then there is the whole “Klavino” thing. Klein and Savino, whose romantic relationship has been one of Albany’s worst-kept secrets, has now become public and has made the group seem even more of a joke.
But their group’s study apparently has gained some traction. It is said that some Republicans haven’t heard the argument about the financial benefits legalizing gay marriage could bring the state. The group of four all do support gay marriage, and in some ways it seems like they are trying to act as a bridge between gay-marriage advocates and the Republican majority. But what does it say about New York politics if the study really does make a difference?
Gay marriage is on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s list of top three legislative priorities for this year, along with a tax cap and ethics reform. He is touring the state, drumming up support for the issues, and yet, up until Tuesday of this week there was no gay-marriage bill pending in either house. Cuomo said on Wednesday that the administration was waiting to introduce a program bill until it had clear support in the Senate.
Thousands gathered at the capital on Monday to show support for gay marriage. It was supposed to be the big coming-out party for Cuomo’s support of the issue. He has been working on organizing the effort behind the scenes, drawing in celebrities and organizations and getting them to lobby waffling legislators; advocates have told me they haven’t seen any other governor devote so much staff, effort and time to the issue. Yet Cuomo didn’t speak at the rally on Monday. He sent Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy in his stead. Advocates kept a happy face and said it didn’t irk them. But some took it as a sign Cuomo was unwilling to make a very public push himself until he was assured a winner. And right now marriage equality—a basic civil-rights issue in my humble opinion—isn’t likely to pass this year.
Openly gay Assembly member Danny O’Donnell introduced a bill in the Assembly on Tuesday, saying he couldn’t wait for the governor any longer.
Senate Republicans have said repeatedly they will allow the measure to come to the floor and allow members to vote their conscience. But we have seen Republicans vote “no” as a bloc many times before. And even if they don’t—even if there are a number of Republicans who would vote yes—it isn’t clear how many Democrats would. Last year Sen. Joseph Addabbo, a Democrat, voted no early in a roll-call voice vote. That was seen as causing a domino effect. “If Addabbo voted no, then the whole thing is blown,” other senators allegedly thought, and then voted no themselves. Eight Democrats voted against the bill.
A number of those legislators lost their seats and have been replaced by pro-marriage-equality Democrats. But the most outspoken opponent of gay marriage remains a Democrat: Sen. Ruben Diaz, the sometimes-crazed reverend, who has planned a rally for traditional marriage in the Bronx this weekend. And Addabbo is still fence-sitting, telling some that the majority of his constituents just don’t support gay marriage.
The thinking is that the IDC report could give a few Republicans the cover they need to vote yes—as in, “I did it for the money—to bolster the state’s economy. I don’t really like gay marriage. Ick.” It is a pathetic argument. Traditional marriage groups are dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the fight and pledging to protect any legislator from marriage-equality supporters during the next election if they vote no.
So, many legislators remain too scared to state which way they will vote and are playing “I’m not telling” with reporters. And New York—supposedly one of the most progressive states—remains an embarrassment, the civil rights of thousands being held up by legislators too cowardly to risk irking a few constituents to take a stand for civil rights. Because that is how this issue will be remembered in a few decades’ time: as one of pure civil rights. And right now the issue is shines like a beacon illuminating how callous and self-interested some of Albany’s legislators have become.