Gov. David A. Paterson introduced a bill on Thursday to legalize same-sex marriage, vowing to personally involve himself in the legislative debate at a level that is rare for a New York governor.
Throwing the weight of his office behind legislation that still faces considerable obstacles in the state Legislature in Albany, Paterson said he would leverage the personal relationships he developed over two decades in the state Senate to see the bill voted on — and passed. The vote is expected to turn on the thinnest of margins in the Senate, and some advocates say Paterson’s direct involvement could prove pivotal.
At a news conference in Manhattan on Thursday, Paterson, a Democrat, invoked the abolitionist movement of the 1800s, the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision to argue that New York had neglected civil rights for gays and lesbians for too long. “I’m putting a stop to it,” he said. “We have a duty to make sure equality exists for everyone.”
The announcement came amid growing activity around the country on same-sex marriage: Iowa and Vermont have legalized the practice in the past month, and the New Hampshire state Senate has been debating it this week. Massachusetts and Connecticut already have gay marriage, and a campaign is under way to extend it across New England by 2012.
In New York, the state Assembly passed a same-sex marriage bill in 2007 by a vote of 85-61, a margin expected to widen when the measure is reconsidered this spring. But the path in the Senate is less clear: 32 votes are needed, and Democrats say about 25 of their 32 members currently support it. So the outcome will probably hinge on whether Paterson and other advocates can persuade Republican senators reluctant to break ranks with their leaders to back the bill.
Gay-rights advocates expressed confidence on Thursday that Paterson’s personal involvement could make a difference, despite his dismal approval ratings and struggle to advance other aspects of his agenda. They said lawmakers sometimes feel less confined by partisan loyalty on civil rights issues like same-sex marriage.
Paterson’s role in steering the bill through Albany, which is still being worked out among his aides, legislative officials and lobbyists, is the latest in a list of personal campaigns on gay-rights issues throughout his career.
As a rank-and-file state senator in the 1980s, Paterson led the first effort to establish hate crimes laws in New York. Years later, when a hate-crimes bill passed, in 2000, it included protections for gays and lesbians at Paterson’s urging.
In 2002, as the Senate minority leader, Paterson led Democrats in rounding up enough votes to pass the law prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians. He has frequently attributed his passionate advocacy of gay rights in large part to his close relationship with a gay couple who were friends of his parents in Harlem. He still affectionately refers to the couple, now deceased, as Uncle Stanley and Uncle Ronald.