Odd Man Out

With his fancy footwork over gay marriage, Bloomberg could be stepping on too many toes

Who knows what Mayor Michael Bloomberg hoped his personal support for same-sex marriage would gain him as the city appeals a ruling granting just those rights. Maybe he wanted a little time to let tempers on both sides die down. Maybe he wanted a little leniency from the left. Maybe he hoped conservatives wouldn't much notice. Or maybe he just needed to soothe his own conscience after a year of dodging and waffling on an issue he now purports to have a solid opinion about.

Whatever it was that he wanted, his decision to have city attorneys fight the February 4 ruling for marriage equality seems to have bought him just one thing: a political fight he can ill afford to lose. For no matter what voters think of the issue, his opponents in this year's mayoral race are determined to make him pay.

Witness the performance of Democrat Gifford Miller, City Council Speaker and candidate to replace Bloomberg, at a pro-gay-marriage rally on February 7. The event was meant to celebrate the favorable ruling from a Manhattan court. It turned into a Bloomberg roast instead. With close to 200 activists booing and hissing at each mention of the mayor's name, Miller told the crowd at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center that Bloomberg is working both ends against the middle. Despite his words of support, Miller said, the mayor "is using the weight of his office and tax dollars to fight this decision."

Same-sex appeal: Mayor Mike Bloomberg half raising a flag at the 2003 Gay Pride
photo: Cary Conover
Same-sex appeal: Mayor Mike Bloomberg half raising a flag at the 2003 Gay Pride

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  • As Miller reminded audience members that actions speak louder than words, they jeered and roared. One shouted, "Dumb Bloomberg!" Others expressed outrage in the open-mic session—calling the mayor a "hypocrite" and "two-faced friend."

    The next day, the administration filed a 62-page brief arguing gay and lesbian couples have no right to marry under state law. Between the legal arguments and the fury at the protest last week, you wouldn't have known that one of the biggest names in state politics—let alone a Republican—had just come out in favor of gay marriage.

    In backing marriage rights, Bloomberg now stands nearly alone among members of his party. For this tough spot, the lifelong Democrat who turned Republican four years ago can thank judge Doris Ling-Cohan, whose February 4 ruling legalized same-sex marriages. By refusing to appeal, Bloomberg would have opened City Hall to a flood of gay and lesbian couples eager to get hitched—not a scenario likely to appeal to the conservative voters he needs in the GOP primary. But his move to invalidate the landmark ruling has alienated gay and straight constituents who support full equality for same-sex couples, a coalition that includes the majority of his constituents.

    "He's not in an enviable position," says Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. The only thing any politician could do in this situation is, he says, to "hope the courts get you out of this predicament."


    Rage from local pro-gay-marriage activists has been swift, and sustained. Hours after Bloomberg stated his nuanced position on the marriage ruling, the mayor went from receiving a standing ovation at a Manhattan fundraiser for a national gay rights group to being heckled off the stage at a Queens gay social event.

    "We were fuming," says Jon Winkleman of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York, who joined a dozen others in taunting Bloomberg in Queens. When the mayor told the crowd he believes gay and lesbian couples ought to be allowed to wed, they shouted, "Liar!" When he said the city must appeal so the state's highest court can clarify the constitutional questions, people yelled, "How dare you!" The catcalls grew so loud that a red-faced Bloomberg warned the crowd, according to several attendees, "You'd better hope I'm on your side."

    Ever since, gay marriage supporters have blasted Bloomberg's actions from City Hall to the Internet as politically expedient, a cold calculation meant to soften the blow of the appeal. The same Bloomberg who had won office by convincing voters he was an independent-minded entrepreneur was suddenly attempting to save his hide with a blatant campaign maneuver. "The mayor has sent a message to the city that he is a political person—not just a businessperson—and can take positions with double meaning," says City Councilmember Margarita Lopez, a lesbian from Manhattan.

    Bloomberg's stance has riled gay marriage opponents too, albeit in less visible fashion. Opponents may have interpreted the legal appeal as a sign the mayor was willing to put up the good fight to stop same-sex marriage. But now that he's expressed his views, says Michael Long, a prominent Brooklyn conservative, churchgoing moderates and conservatives are left scratching their heads. Says Long, "It's clear he's playing both sides."

    As Bloomberg defenders tell it, the mayor expected to take all this heat—especially in an election year. If his decision had been about politics, his aides say, the mayor would have avoided the fight he now faces from two sides. He'd either have come out for same-sex marriages and dropped the appeal, they say, or he'd have kept his mouth shut and fought the ruling. "The mayor didn't make a political calculation. He made a determination to balance his philosophical views with his mayoral duties," says Ed Skyler, his spokesperson. One of those duties is defending the current law.

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