Volume 19 Issue 51 | May 4 -10, 2007

Silver backs Assembly vote on gay marriage bill

By Paul Schindler

Four days after Governor Eliot Spitzer buoyed the spirits of gay New Yorkers by introducing same-sex marriage equality legislation, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan, for the first time signaled that the Assembly may in fact move on the measure this year.

However gay Upper West Side Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, the bill’s new sponsor, took pains to caution against “false expectations” about success.

The Daily News’ Liz Benjamin, writing on her blog late Tuesday, reported that Silver “said he expects the Democratic conference will take up the bill within the next three weeks.” The speaker’s office on Wednesday, without skipping a beat, confirmed that account. Bills that have the support of enough Democrats to guarantee passage, even without a single G.O.P. aye, are typically sent to the Assembly floor for a vote.

However, O’Donnell, also on Tuesday, noting that Spitzer’s bill arrives less than eight weeks before the June 21 recess, told Downtown Express that passage by the Assembly is “highly unlikely” in this session.

In a follow-up call he said “I am confident that if the votes are there, it will come to a vote. In my conversations with him, the speaker has made that very clear. I don’t know if the votes are there today, because I just got the bill yesterday.”

Silver’s statement and O’Donnell’s expression of confidence that given sufficient votes the bill would go to the floor for a vote are significant because to date the speaker, who assiduously protects a super-majority that now numbers 108 out of 150 seats, has been Sphinx-like about his position on gay marriage, saying he would have to consult the Assembly’s Democratic caucus. Given Senate Republican Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s opposition on the issue — which he reiterated to reporters on Tuesday — some advocates had feared that Silver might be unwilling to call the controversial question while the G.O.P. still held its slender two-vote hold on the Senate and full legislative passage was not possible.

The Empire State Pride Agenda, New York’s gay rights lobbying group, came away from a meeting with Silver with an impression consistent with the comment the speaker offered Benjamin later that day.

“We had a very positive meeting with the speaker,” Alan Van Capelle, ESPA’s executive director, said. “I left very hopeful about the future of the bill.”

Given Van Capelle’s consistent marker in recent months of winning Assembly passage this year, his comment suggests that Silver may have told him as well that Democratic caucus consideration of the bill is in the offing.

In light of Silver’s new posture, O’Donnell’s caution is surprising. Democrat Dick Gottfried, who has sponsored a marriage equality bill with his gay Downtown colleague, Senator Tom Duane, since 2002, had identified at least 42 Assembly members willing to co-sponsor his measure. And according to an ESPA tally, prior to Spitzer’s move last Friday, 62 members of the Assembly had indicated they would vote for marriage equality, just 14 shy of the 76 votes needed.

Downtown Assemblymember Deborah Glick, a lesbian who withdrew her sponsorship of the bill earlier this year to put the focus on Spitzer, is now supporting it again.

And O’Donnell, Gottfried, and Van Capelle agree that Spitzer’s bold move last week should prove to be a potent catalyst, though as of press time ESPA had not yet tabulated the increase in support resulting from Tuesday’s lobbying.

But O’Donnell, like everyone else, recognizes that the field of play for the near term is the Assembly, and he is visibly working to calibrate his leadership message even as he ponders how to accurately measure the strength he is building for the bill in his caucus. It is clear that part of his calculation is the near-certainty of no action by the Senate under G.O.P. control.

“You don’t want to pass this with 76 votes,” he said Tuesday, noting that it would not result in marriage equality today but might “lock in no votes” for the future, while that fragile majority could later erode through attrition and not be there when the Assembly has to re-approve the measure in subsequent sessions.

“Legislators do not want to change their votes,” O’Donnell said of the risk of calling the question too early.

Just what level of support would O’Donnell like to see before trying to move his caucus?

“The reason I can’t answer that question is because I have to see who the votes are,” he said Wednesday. “I have to look not only at the number, but who the people are.”

ESPA and others Tuesday were emphasizing the upside potential that came out of Spitzer’s action last week.

Brendan Fay, the longtime gay, AIDS, and immigration activist who married his husband Tom Moulton in Toronto, offered advice to O’Donnell in his new task of rounding up votes on marriage.

“He ought to tap into the passionate Danny O’Donnell that we love and sent to Albany,” he said. “Now that the baton has been handed to Danny O’Donnell, I know that beginning tomorrow he has to work to get this done now. Don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today.”

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