Thursday, February 16, 2012

The New Marriage Fight Begins, in New Jersey

With the state Legislature pushing through same-sex marriage legislation here, gay-rights advocates will now have a long and difficult road to override Gov. Chris Christie's promised veto. Mr. Christie, a Republican who wields enormous sway over legislators from his party, has said he will swiftly veto the legislation once it is delivered to his desk by the end of the day Friday. And the Assembly barely got the bill through Thursday, passing it 42-33 in the 80-member body without any Republican support and four Democrats voting against it.

Supporters have until the end of the session in January 2014 to override his veto, buying advocates some time to sway lawmakers on the issue. But veto overrides are rare in New Jersey. The last notable time the Legislature overrode a veto was in 1992 and 1993, when lawmakers won a series of override votes during the administration of unpopular Gov. James Florio, according to the Office of Legislative Services. It will take 54 votes for an override in the Assembly, an uphill battle that will require Republicans to switch sides. Gay-marriage opponent Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said Democrats "couldn't get their whole delegation. From our perspective, that was good sign." Mr. Deo and other opponents said they would pressure lawmakers to not change their vote.

  If the veto stands, it would be the second time in New Jersey that gay marriage failed, marring a string of victories for same-sex nuptials across the country in the past year. "My sense right now is that there will not be an override vote," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "New Jersey is viewed as one of the more progressive states, and social conservatives will tout this as a victory." The state Senate appears closer to having the votes for a veto override. The Senate passed the legislation Monday by 24-16. Supporters need three additional votes to override in the 40-member body. "Marriage equality will happen in New Jersey," said Senate President Steve Sweeney, one of the bill's champions, in a statement. Mr. Sweeney has promised to get the votes to override Mr. Christie's veto.

Thursday was the first time the Assembly had voted on the legislation. Supporters were expecting at least one or two Republicans to vote with them, but Mary Pat Angelini and Declan O'Scanlon, both of Monmouth County, didn't show up. They were attending the wedding of state Sen. Jennifer Beck, a Republican, who had supported the bill in her chamber. Without their support, other lukewarm Republicans couldn't be twisted into yes votes, according to a person familiar with the strategy of legislation supporters. Assembly Democrats who voted against the legislation tend to be religious or in conservative districts in New Jersey, the person said. "It really means, much like the Senate, that it's going to require digging a bit deeper into the Republican caucus," the person said. "There are sympathetic ears in that caucus." Both sides are now gearing up for a long expensive fight.

  Mr. Deo said opponents would do whatever it takes to keep "marriage as the union of one man and one woman." The approach will include "lobbying lawmakers and educational efforts," he said. Opponents have also pledged to spend heavily against legislators in conservative districts who vote for the legislation. Supporters don't plan on engaging in a widespread advertising effort, but instead will appeal to individual lawmakers, said Evan Wolfson, president and founder of the national Freedom to Marry organization. Garden State Equality and his group will deploy organizers to key districts to recruit committed same-sex couples to share their personal stories with legislators, he said. "We will bring an end to marriage discrimination in New Jersey," said Mr. Wolfson, who believes that "heart-to-heart conversations" with gay families helps sway lawmakers best.

He said advocates will take lessons learned in Vermont—the Legisature there overrode the governor's veto of a gay-marriage bill in 2009. Both sides didn't engage in heavy advertising efforts in 2009, when gay-marriage legislation was last tried in the state. The bill was introduced in the last weeks of former Gov. Jon Corzine's lame-duck session, and organizing efforts were targeted at wavering legislators, according to those involved at the time. Individual legislators said they have already received hundreds of calls and emails from opponents and supporters. Those calls will likely continue. "We will be engaged and doing whatever needs to be done," Mr. Deo said.