Friday, January 8, 2010

My education in New Jersey politics

Yesterday saw the long-awaited vote in the New Jersey state senate on the issue of marriage equality. I won't go into the legal aspects of this issue, all stemming from a court case decided a few years ago by the New Jersey supreme court finding that the state was required to offer same-sex couples the same rights and protections as currently enjoyed by straight couples who are married under the state's civil marriage statute. That the state legislature's 2006 civil unions statute has failed to meet the requirements of the court decision has been amply demonstrated. What remained was for the legislature to do not only the right thing with respect to justice, but to do what it had to do to comply with New Jersey's state constitution. Yesterday, the New Jersey state senate failed to do that.

But the story is much more nuanced than simply focusing on a 20-14 tally would suggest. After all, three Democrats abstained from voting altogether: Senate judiciary committee chair Sarlo, who had voted no in committee in December, abstained rather than voting no again, with no explanation offered. Senator Beach, whose district includes the city of Collingswood with its large gay population, likewise abstained and promptly fled the chamber refusing to explain why. Incoming senate preside Sweeney, who admitted that our side had made a persuasive argument for marriage equality, abstained. Yes, the incoming leader of the upper chamber of the New Jersey state senate, a mean who through a power play was able to push aside a widely-respected leader like Senator Codey, demonstrated his idea of leadership by failing to vote on probably one of the most important pieces of legislation in quite some time. Senator Sweeney's brand of leadership is to see which way the political winds are blowing and to act accordingly. He's not a leader. He's not even a follower. He's a weather vane.

As for the Republicans, apparently there were many who this past summer would have voted yes for marriage equality. Many of them (senators Beck and Sean Kean immediately come to mind) represent districts with large gay populations. But then Chris Christie won election over a Governor Corzine, a weak candidate, a poor campaigner, and an unpopular governor. So unprincipled, so without independence of thought are those Republican senators that their support shifted to opposition. During the hearing in the judiciary committee, for example, senator Beck voted no without once (as I recall) asking a question of the witness during many hours of testimony. She never offered an explanation. Those Republican senators who took their marching orders from the incoming governor, who has made it abundantly clear he opposes marriage equality, are not fit to occupy their seats. They are not thinkers, they are not leaders, they are political weather vanes.

Sean Kean (not to be confused with the other marriage opponent Tom Kean) probably provided the most perplexing speech yesterday. He stood up and talked at length, often repeating himself, about how gay people move into neighborhoods and make great neighbors and improve property values. He went on to brag about how he has many gay friends and has held public events with gay people. He joked how he's been told he represents a particularly gay district. But he said he would vote no. So gays are good for increasing property values but not good enough to have equal rights. He didn't offer any explanation as to why he voted no. He simply went on a self-serving diatribe about how offended he was at the implication he was bigoted for voting no. How like a bigot to not recognize his own bigotry. In that respect, bigotry is a lot like body odor: those who stink seldom smell their own odor.

From ranking Republican judiciary committee member Cardinale, who had given a bravura performance in ignorance, bigotry and incivility during the committee hearing in December, we heard the same tired slippery-slope arguments. Newcomer Republican Doherty demonstrated his complete ignorance of this country's constitutional principles by arguing that the rights of a minority should be subject to the whims of an oppressive majority, something the founding fathers rejected by establishing a representative form of government.

But there was one Republican, Senator Baroni who represents my partner's (wait, make that husband's) parent's district and who had voted yes in committee, who spoke at length about the very nature of love between two people who have supported and cared for each other. He compared the love shared by Marsha and Louise, who have been featured so prominently in our campaign, to the love shared by his grandparents, finding that there was no difference at all. His speech was brilliant and moved many of us in the audience to tears.

Speaking of emotion, Senator Lesniak choked up on reading a letter from a constituent, Senator Cunningham spoke from the perspective of being descended from slaves, Senator Ruiz spoke briefly and eloquently about never denying others the opportunities that had been denied the Latino population. Senator Gill, as is usual for her, spoke calmly, quietly but with strength and passion about how this fight is at its core a fight about civil rights. As an African American woman who has practiced law and represents a district with a large African American population, she is certainly qualified to speak to issues of civil rights. She has earned our admiration for doing so on behalf of our community.

Finally, congratulations go to Senator Weinberg who has been so persistent on this and many other progressive issues. She opened and closed debate by reminding the members of the senate that their responsibility as leaders was to vote their conscience. It is to their shame that so many failed to do so. It is a lesson to all of us, straight and gay, who care about progressive issues, that many members and leaders in the Democratic Party cannot be counted on to exercise their responsibility to all the citizens of New Jersey. It is a lesson that there are many Republican senators who actually are reasonably progressive on social issues, reflecting the general mood in their districts, but who nevertheless put towing their party line ahead of thinking for themselves.

But the three biggest lessons I learned yesterday is that never should members of our community donate money to, volunteer for, and vote for members of either party who do not pass one simple acid test: Do you commit publicly to the principle that lesbians and gay men are entitled to the full range of citizenship in our state including the right to the protections and responsibilities afforded by civil marriage in name and in fact?

The second lesson is that we must each commit to supporting any challenger to the sitting members of the legislature who have, whether by voting no or by abstaining or by professing opposition to us (in the case of the assembly, which will not vote on this bill), by donating money to, canvasing on behalf of, and voting for those challengers so long as they are on our side. We must demonstrate that our resources, which for too long have gone to support candidates who do not support us or are cause, can be brought to bear against those who oppose us.

Finally, I can't help but think of how the concerns of women and African Americans and Latinos and so many other disadvantaged parts of our society didn't get addressed in fundamental ways until leaders from those same communities rose up, spoke out, and began to take positions of responsibility in the community at large and in government. There are still precious few out members of the LGBT community in prominent positions in government. We need to be everywhere in the public sphere. And that includes in all levels of government, from dog catcher all the way up to the executive. That begins with running for office. I heard one gentleman at our post-vote reception, say he would take that challenge. We all need to take an active role, even if it means volunteering on a municipal committee to start out. We can't be passive observers of the political process any longer.

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