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Democrats’ Gay Marriage Gambit

New Jersey’s legislative leadership announced today that their first bill of the new session will be legalizing gay marriage.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, who abstained on this bill during the last days of Jon Corzine’s administration, now says he made a mistake. Further, he says that his decision calculus two years ago was politically driven, but this time it is not. Really?

I’m not saying that Sen. Sweeney has not had a change of heart on the issue. I believe he has. But to bring it up now, when it is all but certain that Gov. Christie will veto the bill makes it hard to overlook the political implications of making the governor go on record.

There were three key messages espoused by proponents at today’s press conference. Each had a political undercurrent. Let’s break them down.

Civil unions are a failed experiment” – This is an appeal to public opinion. Polls show that New Jerseyans have become more supportive of gay marriage over the past few years. An Eagleton-Rutgers Poll released in October found 52% of state residents saying gay marriage should be legal. Some analysis I did a few years ago on the strength of this support indicates that majority support levels are soft and susceptible to shift.

So, public support for gay marriage is not definitively in the majority yet. However, the same Eagleton poll found that support for “marriage equality” is decidedly in the majority at 61%. If gay marriage advocates can convince the public that the only way to achieve this equality is through “marriage” they are on track to solidifying public support.

It’s a civil rights issue” – This is an appeal to the Democrats’ own base. Two years ago, the gay marriage bill passed in the Assembly but garnered only 14 affirmative votes in the Senate.

Sen. Sweeney indicated that he will have the 21 votes needed for passage, but it’s uncertain if he will have any more than that. And when Sen. Loretta Weinberg announced that Jen Beck “was going to try to be here” at the press conference, it suggested that the Republican senator’s support would be necessary.

Back in 2010, it was believed that Beck would be among a small group of GOP legislators to support gay marriage. She ended up voting no after then-Governor-elect Christie instructed his fellow Republicans not to saddle him with pressure from the right to repeal gay marriage as he entered office.

Beck had a change of heart last year and said she now supports gay marriage. It’s probably only a coincidence that she made her support known after the new legislative map plonked Asbury Park in her district.

Beck has bucked from the GOP voting bloc before, specifically on women’s health center funding. But in that case, her vote was not needed for passage. If she really is the 21stvote on gay marriage, then you better believe the governor’s people will put a full court press on her to keep this bill from coming to his desk.

And that’s where the civil rights message comes in. Two of the “no” votes in 2010 came from Ron Rice and Shirley Turner, two African-American senators. It’s unlikely that Rice’s mind will be changed based on his comments during the debate two years ago. That means Democrats are hoping that the civil rights argument will work on Turner and they won’t have to rely on Beck.

We hope Gov. Christie has a change of heart” – The Democrats may hope that, but there is no one who expects it. And this is why the bill was brought up now. It’s the opening salvo in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign.

A Christie veto – for which there is no chance of an override – will be used by Democrats to paint the governor as someone who is kowtowing to the right wing of his own party. They will say he is more interested in his national political ambitions then in serving the people of New Jersey.

And what if the governor does have a change of heart and actually signs the bill – or lets it take effect without his signature? Then he has pretty much kissed his national political future goodbye.

Either way, Democrats believe it’s a political win for them.

I’m not so sure. Assuming that Christie vetoes gay marriage, there’s no guarantee that it will be a salient political issue in 2013. Voters will be looking at their tax bills and overall economic well-being when deciding whether to give the governor another four years in office.

Looking at the latest poll numbers, Gov. Christie seems to be in fairly good position. Of course, two years is a long time and if his re-election prospects are iffy, then a gay marriage veto could be the deciding factor in a close race.

And that’s what the Democrats are really hoping for.