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NJ Gay-Rights Leader Upbeat But Marriage Bill Faces Uphill Fight

Not enough votes yet in state Senate and state Assembly to override governor’s veto.

lesniak press conference
Credit: Maya Chung
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak speaks in Westfield yesterday about plans to push for same-sex marriage legislation. At right is Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The leader of New Jersey’s most prominent gay-rights group declared yesterday that gays will get the right to marry in the state this year, but Democratic senators do not yet have the votes to override Gov. Christie’s veto of a bill enacting marriage equality.

In light of last week’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriages, five state senators, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Barbara Buono, (D-Middlesex) and the party’s gubernatorial nominee, called on Christie and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, R-Union, to allow Republicans to vote their conscience when the override comes up for a vote.

Based on the February 2012 roll call vote on S1, which would permit same-sex marriage, they need only three additional votes in the Senate, but would have to find a dozen more votes to pass the Assembly version of the bill.

Sweeney said yesterday’s press conference, held at the Westfield home of a lesbian couple who live in Kean’s district, was meant “to start the process for an override,” but he gave no time frame for calling for that vote. Sweeney said he would leave that up to marriage-equality advocates.

“We would prefer to have the vote happen when we have the votes,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality. “We are working toward that and we are getting closer every day.”

Last week, that group and other advocates announced plans to make a major push for same-sex marriage in New Jersey and other states, pursuing their goal both through legislation and in the courts.

The biggest roadblock, according to the Democrats, is that Kean and Christie have told Republican legislators not to support the bill.

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“This governor is one man in the state of New Jersey who stands in the way of marriage equality,” said Buono, whose youngest daughter recently came out publicly as a lesbian.

Responding to Christie’s statement last week that he found the Supreme Court majority opinion insulting to those in Congress and President Clinton who had enacted the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Buono said, “I think what’s insulting is that you are denigrating and demeaning and marginalizing our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

“The time is now, the time is for this governor to step out of the way of progress,” she continued, acknowledging that the issue is somewhat personal because of her daughter. “It’s time for this governor to release his hold on his legislative leaders and let them do the right thing, let them vote their conscience.”

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, recalled the Legislature’s 1982 vote to override the veto of then-Gov. Thomas H. Kean, father of Sen. Tom Kean, of a bill requiring a one-minute moment of silence daily in New Jersey schools. That law was ultimately ruled unconstitutional, but Lesniak said the senior Kean’s decision to let Republicans vote their conscience on the bill – and many did vote for the override -- was the right thing to do.

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“Gov. Kean had enough integrity, enough courage, enough standing within himself to tell his Republican colleagues, ‘I feel this way; this is my conscience; this is what I believe, but I understand if you disagree with me and I will not be upset if you vote against me and override my veto,” said Lesniak, one of the prime sponsors of the marriage equity bill that Christie conditionally vetoed just days after receiving it. “He had enough personal integrity to stand by his beliefs but not impose his personal beliefs.”

Following the press conference, Sen. Kean issued a statement echoing Christie’s veto message and calling for the question to be put up for a vote in November, saying that by not doing so, Sweeney “is exhibiting a complete lack of faith in the people.”

Recent polls have consistently shown that a majority of New Jerseyans want a chance to vote on the issue and, if given such a chance, would vote to allow same-sex marriage.

“Legislators should vote their conscience on every issue,” said Sen. Kean. “We do not need lectures from a senator who did not take a stand in 2010 and cannot rally full support from his entire caucus for this legislation.”

Sweeney, a Catholic, abstained during a last-ditch effort by Democrats in the Senate to pass a marriage- equity bill at the end of the 2008-09 session.

Last year, in co-sponsoring the current bill, he said he had undergone a change of heart. Yesterday, he called the party’s inability to pass the bill prior to Christie taking office “a mistake.”

He said “many members” of the GOP side have told Democrats privately that they will not vote for the override on Christie’s orders.

Asked last week whether he told Republicans not to vote for the bill, Christie called that “a stupid question” and would say only, “You are assuming they’re not voting their conscience now.” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak did not respond to a request to comment on yesterday’s press conference.

In the Senate, two Republicans – Diane Allen, R-7th, and Jennifer Beck, R-11th – did vote for the marriage-equality bill. Lesniak said that is only because they had such strong feelings about the issue. He maintained other Republicans who want to support the bill do not feel they can cross Christie.

“They (Republicans) have been punished in the past, when they voted against this governor,” Lesniak contended. “They have walked out of his office crying.”

The vote in the Senate was 24-16; 27 votes are needed for an override. All the Republicans besides Allen and Beck voted against the bill,, as did two Democrats, Jeff Van Drew, D-1st, and Ronald Rice, D-28th. Sweeney said the leadership would be talking to Van Drew and Rice about the bill.

Democrats are going to have a tougher time in the Assembly, where the vote to approve the bill was 42-33, and 54 votes are needed to override. No Republicans voted for the bill. Voting “no” were four Democrats – Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam, both of Cumberland, Joseph Egan of Middlesex and Gary Schaer of Passaic. Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, D-Mercer, did not vote, nor did three Republicans -- Holly Schepisi of Bergen and Mary Pat Angelini and Declan O’Scanlon, both of Monmouth.

Still, Stevenson was confident that “through litigation or legislation, we will win marriage equality this year.” Garden State Equality is set to file papers today seeking to have a Superior Court judge quickly declare the state’s civil-union law unconstitutional based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Lawyers for GSE and six gay and lesbian couples say they are confident the court will do so, because the Supreme Court’s ruling that part of DOMA is unconstitutional and same-sex married couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as married heterosexuals means New Jersey couples who can only enter into a civil union are being denied their rights.

“Had the governor signed this piece of legislation, 1,138 rights would have been afforded to these two ladies,” Stevenson said, pointing to Liz Flanagan and Nancy Wilkinson, at whose home the Democrats gathered. The women and thousands of other couples “are affected every day” because they can’t marry in New Jersey, Stevenson continued, adding, “Civil unions are not and never will be equal to marriage and it’s time to override this veto.”

The women, who have entered into a civil union, are planning to celebrate their 30th anniversary next week. Flanagan, who had two children by an earlier marriage to a man, proudly said Wilkinson has adopted her children but cannot share everything.

“What isn’t hers legally is access to anything that is not conjoined, all of our finances,” she said. “Maybe we didn’t manage it right. But things (like) her financial longevity would be in jeopardy to a certain extent if we can’t marry, which also means, by the way, that the kids and the grandkids are in jeopardy.”

Wilkinson said she initially had not cared that she and Flanagan could not marry. But as other states – 13 to date – enacted same-sex marriage laws, she began “to feel like a second-class citizen.”

With the DOMA ruling, she said, “Personally, it’s disappointing; it’s a setback to feel like all of a sudden what we had for a while isn’t really real because we aren’t really ever going to be married.”

In the Senate, two Republicans – Diane Allen, R-7th, and Jennifer Beck, R-11th – did vote for the marriage-equality bill. Lesniak said that is only because they had such strong feelings about the issue. He maintained other Republicans who want to support the bill do not feel they can cross Christie.

“They (Republicans) have been punished in the past, when they voted against this governor,” Lesniak contended. “They have walked out of his office crying.”

The vote in the Senate was 24-16; 27 votes are needed for an override. All the Republicans besides Allen and Beck voted against the bill,, as did two Democrats, Jeff Van Drew, D-1st, and Ronald Rice, D-28th. Sweeney said the leadership would be talking to Van Drew and Rice about the bill.

Democrats are going to have a tougher time in the Assembly, where the vote to approve the bill was 42-33, and 54 votes are needed to override. No Republicans voted for the bill. Voting “no” were four Democrats – Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam, both of Cumberland, Joseph Egan of Middlesex and Gary Schaer of Passaic. Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, D-Mercer, did not vote, nor did three Republicans -- Holly Schepisi of Bergen and Mary Pat Angelini and Declan O’Scanlon, both of Monmouth.

Still, Stevenson was confident that “through litigation or legislation, we will win marriage equality this year.” Garden State Equality is set to file papers today seeking to have a Superior Court judge quickly declare the state’s civil-union law unconstitutional based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Lawyers for GSE and six gay and lesbian couples say they are confident the court will do so, because the Supreme Court’s ruling that part of DOMA is unconstitutional and same-sex married couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as married heterosexuals means New Jersey couples who can only enter into a civil union are being denied their rights.

“Had the governor signed this piece of legislation, 1,138 rights would have been afforded to these two ladies,” Stevenson said, pointing to Liz Flanagan and Nancy Wilkinson, at whose home the Democrats gathered. The women and thousands of other couples “are affected every day” because they can’t marry in New Jersey, Stevenson continued, adding, “Civil unions are not and never will be equal to marriage and it’s time to override this veto.”

The women, who have entered into a civil union, are planning to celebrate their 30th anniversary next week. Flanagan, who had two children by an earlier marriage to a man, proudly said Wilkinson has adopted her children but cannot share everything.

“What isn’t hers legally is access to anything that is not conjoined, all of our finances,” she said. “Maybe we didn’t manage it right. But things (like) her financial longevity would be in jeopardy to a certain extent if we can’t marry, which also means, by the way, that the kids and the grandkids are in jeopardy.”

Wilkinson said she initially had not cared that she and Flanagan could not marry. But as other states – 13 to date – enacted same-sex marriage laws, she began “to feel like a second-class citizen.”

With the DOMA ruling, she said, “Personally, it’s disappointing; it’s a setback to feel like all of a sudden what we had for a while isn’t really real because we aren’t really ever going to be married.”

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