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Could Christie’s Record on Gay Marriage Hurt Him With Conservatives, Liberals?

Does Christie have an identity issue that could hurt him in the primaries -- too conservative for moderates, too liberal for the right?

gay marriage

With Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, the issue of same-sex marriage could be put on the back burner during the Republican primaries -- which could be good news for Gov. Chris Christie, who pundits say has a mixed record on this issue.

And it’s this mixed record that could cost the governor -- who is expected to officially announce in Livingston on Tuesday -- votes both in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities and among social conservatives.

This has been a key issue for Christie since he was first mentioned as a national candidate: Can he balance the need to appeal to very conservative Republican primary voters with New Jersey’s more moderate agenda? That has been less of an issue as long as the Republican primaries have been focused on taxes, foreign affairs, and economics.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University Dworkin, said that the marriage issue is likely only to be an issue if other candidates make it one.

“In a presidential primary, issues become issues once your opponent makes them so,” he said. “Until Christie’s opponents start attacking him on marriage and related issues, it doesn’t mean anything.”

Several Republican presidential hopefuls have weighed in on the Court’s 5-4 ruling,), with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker [|calling for a federal constitutional amendment] to all states to define marriage.

Christie, during a press conference at the State House, said he disagreed with the ruling. The issue of same-sex marriage, he said, should be decided by the people and not the courts -- a position he has held since the state Legislature passed a marriage-equality bill early in his first term. Christie vetoed that bill conditionally, rewriting it to call for a statewide referendum on the question.

“I think this is something that should be decided by the people of each state, and not imposed on them by a group of lawyers sitting in black robes at the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said Friday. “That being said, those five lawyers get to impose it under our system so our job is going to be to support the law of the land and, under the Supreme Court ruling, that is the law of the land.”

David Redlawsk, director of polling for the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University, said Christie’s comment on Friday lacked real substance and was somewhat contradictory, given his actions on the same-sex marriage legislation in New Jersey. While Christie conditionally vetoed the New Jersey bill in 2012, he also appealed a Superior Court ruling in 2013 that legalized same-sex marriage, only dropping the appeal when the state Supreme Court refused his request for a stay of the lower court ruling. That decision allowed same-sex couples to marry and angered conservatives.

“He vetoed a same-sex marriage bill that would have been the state acting on the marriage question, which is what he said he wanted,” he said. “And before he dropped the case, he took it to the Supreme Court. Today, he says ‘the courts have ruled and that we have to accept the ruling, that that is what I did in New Jersey.’ But he didn’t accept the ruling until it was a fait accompli.”

Christie’s record on LGBT issues is patchy, activists say, offering ammunition that both supporters of the LGBT community and social conservatives can use to criticize him.

He signed the anti-bullying bill of rights into law in 2011, a law that Garden State Equality says holds schools accountable when students are bullied for any reason, including sexual orientation. And LGBT activists also credit the governor for signing legislation in 2013 banning so-called gay conversion therapy for teens, a scientifically dubious process that promises to end same-sex attraction.

At the time, the governor said he was signing the legislation “reluctantly,” because the law would interfere with parental rights. However, he said there was [|no evidence] conversion therapy worked Conservative groups sued shortly after the bill was signed into law, and a federal court tossed out the challenge in April.

Neither of those bills won the governor fans on the right. This is part of what makes him a long shot in both Iowa and South Carolina, though he could have a better chance in more libertarian-leaning New Hampshire, Redlawsk said. Republican primaries, and especially the Iowa caucuses, are “dominated by people who are more conservative than he generally is.”

“The conservatives that don’t trust him will not trust him, and he certainly didn’t make the kind of statement that would make them happy,” Redlawsk said. “He does these things, like signing the conversion therapy bill, that do not play to strong conservatives … He is sitting in New Jersey treading the fine line between the kind of governor New Jersey wants and the positions they want and his national ambitions.”

Two more recent bills – the New Jersey Gestational Carrier Agreement Act (S866/A2648) and legislation making it easier for transgendered people to change the gender listed on their birth certificates (S1195/A2659) -- await action from the governor, though Christie already vetoed versions of both bills during the 2012-2013 legislative session. Both bills are opposed by conservative groups.

Senate Bill S866, which passed the Senate 21-13 in February and the Assembly 43-25 in May, would ensure that a woman who has agreed to carry and give birth to a child created using assisted reproduction on behalf of others could not claim to be the child’s mother. Andy Bowen, executive director of Garden State Equality, says the legislation is an important safeguard for LGBT couples who use gestational surrogacy to become parents.

“A lot of gay and lesbian couples have their children through gestational surrogacy,” she said. “It is important to be able to create an actual legal framework to ensure that the baby belongs to the couple and not the gestational carrier.”

The bill is opposed by New Jersey Right to Life, which says it turns women into commodities and exploits them, while turning pregnancy into a commercial transaction that leads to the creation and destruction of embryos.

S1195/A2659 passed both the Assembly (51-23) and Senate (30-6) on Thursday. It would allow birth certificates to be amended for transgendered New Jerseyans regardless of whether they undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Under current New Jersey law, a birth certificate can only be amended after a physician certifies that reassignment has occurred; the new law would allow those undergoing treatment for gender transition or who have been certified by a physician as having “an intersex condition” to amend their birth certificates.

According to Dworkin, the governor has “cut his own path” on the marriage issue, which could set him apart from other candidates.

“It is hard to pin him down as some kind of a caricature of what he really is,” Dworkin said. “In some cases he might be more moderate, but on other points he is more conservative. He has cut his own path, which bodes well as he presents himself as a thoughtful conservative.”

“We are talking about (same-sex marriage) today because of the ruling,” he said, “and I am not sure that when Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans vote in seven months, if this will be the top issue for people going to the polls.”

Redlawsk, however, said the marriage issue is an important one for Iowa Republicans, who tend to be more conservative than the general electorate and are typically evangelical Christians.

“I think the strong conservatives see Christie dropping his appeal, despite the fact that he was going to lose -- it did not sit well with strong conservatives,” he said. “They thought he should fight the good fight until the end.”

Redlawsk said the governor has not changed his position on same-sex marriage, though he is looking for a way to package it for the early primary and caucus voters.

“The bottom line is he is personally opposed to same-sex marriage and he has been personally opposed from day one,” Redlawsk said. “But the question is how does he deal with the right-wing explosion on the issue. There already have been calls for a constitutional amendment. Is that where Christie goes? Walker already has staked it out.”

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