Reversal marks significant shift for Democratic senator, gives momentum to marriage movement in New York
NEW YORK — Sen. Charles Schumer reached out to gay leaders earlier this month and convened a meeting at an upscale Manhattan restaurant to make an important announcement: He was supporting gay marriage after years of opposing it.
The response from the crowd was swift.
"The room applauded," recalled Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, who helped organize the Sunday, March 22 dinner at Gramercy Tavern.
The reversal marked a significant shift for the Democratic senator and gave further momentum to gay marriage in New York, where every other statewide Democratic official supports such unions.
Schumer’s change, some political observers suggested, stemmed from pressure to bring his position on gay marriage in line with the other officials, while coming at a time when support for same-sex unions is strong in New York. Also, it’s likely New York’s gay rights interest groups, which played a role in Democrats retaking control of the state Senate last November, were pressing Schumer to change his position.
"At this point we have a fair amount of knowledge that supporting gay marriage in the Northeast is not the kiss of death politically" that it could be as recently as a decade ago, said Lee Badgett, director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and research director at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA.
If anything, Schumer’s support for gay marriage is likely to bolster momentum for legalizing gay marriage in New York, where a gay marriage bill passed the Assembly in 2007.
Massachusetts and Connecticut have legalized gay marriage while New Jersey and New Hampshire allow same-sex civil unions. In Vermont, where civil unions also are legal, the state Senate on Monday, March 23 passed a same-sex marriage bill.
Although support of gay marriage is less damaging than it used to be, the normally publicity hungry Schumer did not really promote his change, quietly issuing a three-sentence press release instead. It was Empire State Pride Agenda that made the announcement Monday, followed by a brief statement from Schumer that night.
Schumer declined a request for an interview to discuss the change, but spokesman Josh Vlasto released a one-paragraph statement that read: "I have thought long and hard about it. I have always believed that one of the great traits in America is we seek equality and should always strive to achieve it. We may not have been ready in 1996 when this issue first arose in Congress but I believe we are now."
In addition to supporting gay marriage, Schumer said he supported a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which he voted for in 1996.
"I’m surprised he didn’t make more of a splash about it," said Tom McClusky, vice president of the Family Research Council’s legislative arm. "Chuck Schumer likes cameras."
McClusky suggested that former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s ascension to Secretary of State had something to do with the change of heart. Clinton opposed same-sex marriage, but her replacement, Kirsten Gillibrand, favors it. McClusky said that Clinton provided Schumer "cover" on the issue that disappeared after Gillibrand’s announcement.
"He wasn’t the only statewide elected Democrat who didn’t support same sex marriage," he said.
But even with his newfound public position, Schumer’s reversal isn’t likely to have much impact nationally, political scientists say. The Defense of Marriage Act denies federal recognition of same-sex marriages and gives states the right to refuse to recognize such marriages.
"You’ll need 60 votes in the U.S. Senate [to repeal the law]," said Justin Phillips, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University. "It’s hard to imagine at this point where those 60 votes would come from. I couldn’t identify 60 senators who would support that right now."
The Empire State Pride Agenda said Schumer told gay leaders he would work "in the interim" toward changing federal laws and regulations to benefit legally married same-sex couples. Such an example would be tweaking federal tax codes to allow gay couples to file join returns.
"His support could not have come at a better time in our community," said Empire State Pride Agenda’s Alan Van Capelle.