Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the marriage equality bill 8 to 4. That’s a notable difference from the narrow 7 to 6 victory in the Senate Judiciary Committee we had in December 2009. Then as yesterday, voting for us on the Committee were the bill’s prime sponsors, Senators Loretta Weinberg and Raymond Lesniak, our beloved champions.
Yesterday’s vote also included a dramatic change of heart by Senator Paul Sarlo, who in 2009 spoke and voted in the Committee against marriage equality. In voting for the bill yesterday, Senator Sarlo delivered eloquent remarks on the proven failure of New Jersey’s civil union law and the constitutional right of same-sex couples to equality.
Senate President Steve Sweeney continues to be a Godsend. I swear to you, he isn’t engaged in some superficial stunt to make up for not voting the correct way previously. For more than a year, he has worked tirelessly behind the scenes, with intense, nearly indescribable dedication, to winning marriage equality. He has been doing as much to win equality in New Jersey as Governor Andrew Cuomo did to win marriage equality in New York last year.
Yesterday, Senator Sweeney was heroic. He led the testimony for marriage equality. He sat through the entire three-and-a-half hour hearing, from beginning to end, to send the strongest possible signal of his support. You wouldn’t get that from a Senate President in many states. And picture this: Yesterday, in the midst of the hearing, word came that Governor Christie had just called for a referendum on our civil rights. One Senator on the Committee read the news aloud on his smart phone, and then told the crowd he would talk to Senator Sweeney after the hearing about a referendum.
Senator Sweeney interrupted the proceedings right in their tracks and said: You have your answer now. It’s not going to happen. We don’t vote on people’s civil rights.
There was thunderous applause.
Senator Sweeney and the entire legislative leadership, including Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, are steadfast in their view. And that makes all the difference. In New Jersey, the legislature has to approve a referendum first.
By the way, the last time New Jersey had a referendum on civil rights, it was on whether to grant women the right to vote. That was in 1915 – and a majority of New Jerseyans voted no.
Now a word about the Governor. Yesterday, the Governor reiterated his years-long promise to veto the bill. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve read lots of tea-leaf reading, frankly baseless, that maybe the Governor would change his mind or just let the bill become law without his signature.
I know this Governor. When he says, as he had in years and months past, that he would veto a marriage equality bill, believe him. We always have. We’ve said so all along in the press.
Our entire plan this go-round has included the assumption of a veto. We have a methodical plan: First pass the bill. Then endure the veto. Then work on an override vote.
Two things we can’t forget therein: First, we have got to pass the bill. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves – we’re working for 21 votes in the Senate and 41 votes in the Assembly. We’re optimistic, but we cannot be complacent. The talk of an override, frankly, is meshuga when we must focus on passing the bill first. Stay focused.
Secondly, we will have all the time we need to methodically achieve an override. After a veto, there is no time limit in New Jersey on how long the legislature has to override a veto, other than the end of the legislative session. The current legislative session, which began only this month, will end in January 2014. Look how the world has changed – and how you helped to change it – since the last vote. Our support in the legislature has increased dramatically. Stunningly. We’ll get that override with time and careful work. But right now, friends, it’s about passing the bill and getting it to the Governor’s desk.
And let’s not forget that Garden State Equality pursues all roads to justice. Represented by our friends at Lambda Legal and the fantastic Gibbons law firm, we also have a lawsuit making its way through the courts.
I’d like to add a word about the Governor’s announcement on Monday that he is nominating the first openly gay person in history to the New Jersey Supreme Court. You saw I issued a glowing statement, quite complimentary of the Governor. We got lots of emails in response from you, our members. They were overwhelmingly supportive of our philosophy that you give credit where credit is due, even in all-too cynical world of politics. A handful of you emailed to say, why say anything nice about this Governor – you can’t trust him.
In light of the Governor’s statement yesterday on a veto and referendum, do I take back my remarks on Monday? I do not. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can be fierce but decent. The Governor did a fantastic thing on Monday with his judicial appointments. He made history. He deserved much credit and we gave it to him.
That doesn’t mean one iota that we’d be blind to the reality that he would continue to oppose marriage equality and veto the bill. Heck, we said it Monday in the very statement we issued praising the Governor for his judicial appointments. “It would be unwise to read any change here in the Governor’s position on marriage equality; he has said in past months and years that he would veto the bill, and we take him at his word. We will fight hard every minute of every day to win marriage equality in New Jersey. Nothing will deter us.”
And friends, nothing indeed will deter us. For now, it’s one step at a time. Let’s pass that bill.