Odd Man Out

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

Skyler says the mayor wrestled for hours over the best course to take. Most compelling to Bloomberg was the lawyers' argument that the city should avoid what happened last year in San Francisco after its mayor, Gavin Newsom, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. People stood in line for days in the rain to get married, only to have their licenses later nullified by a state court. "He couldn't in good conscience allow people to get licenses knowing full well they won't mean anything without a firm court ruling," says informal adviser Jonathan Capehart, who urged Bloomberg to voice his personal belief in same-sex marriage.

This rationale has only incensed pro-gay-marriage activists, who overwhelmingly see it as patronizing. State Senator Tom Duane, a gay legislator from Manhattan, says he doesn't buy the notion that the mayor is trying to spare gay and lesbian couples. "In San Francisco," he says, "people were thrilled" just to be able to get married at City Hall. Besides, the two scenarios differ: In California, Newsom issued licenses in an act of civil disobedience. Here, the city was ordered to do so by a court—yet Bloomberg balked.

"He can spin this however he wants," Duane charges, "but the fact is he is working against our constitutional right to marry."

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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  • Equally insulting to proponents is the mayor's pledge to lobby state legislators for marriage rights. For two years now, gay activists have tried to push a bill sponsored by Duane that would open civil marriage to same-sex couples. The legislation is now languishing in committee with no date set for debate and no real chance for passage. If Bloomberg believes in gay marriage, wonders Scott Jeffrey, a gay activist who heads the libertarian-oriented Legalize, "why hasn't he been lobbying Albany in favor of this bill?" He says the mayor could gain the ear of lawmakers thwarting the bill and maybe move it—if he really believes what he's saying.

    Even gay marriage opponents find the mayor's position disingenuous. If Bloomberg followed his vocal support for same-sex marriages by announcing that the city would not appeal, most conservative voters would have disagreed with him. "But they would have respected him more for taking a firm stand," says City Councilmember James Oddo, of Staten Island, one of three Republicans on the council. "What people take real umbrage with is the mayor's equivocating."


    The issue is bound to become a galvanizing force in the mayoral race—just as it was last fall in the presidential elections. Bloomberg aides say he'll keep running on his record, taking credit for getting the city through a fiscal crisis and bringing crime down. Gay marriage may be on New Yorkers' minds, but so are taxes, schools, and the economy.

    "In all those cases," Capehart argues, "the favorable arrows are through the roof."

    But within the gay community, the fight for civil marriage rights has mobilized activists in a way not seen for a long time. The closer gay and lesbian couples get to achieving full equality under the law, the more important same-sex marriage becomes—and the more impatient they grow with elected officials who compromise.

    Some gay rights activists don't see the mayor's handling of the issue as an actual deal breaker—at least, not yet. Privately, they acknowledge that the fight had to move to the state's highest court regardless of the city's decision. And they recognize a silver lining in the appeal: Municipal lawyers have asked the Court of Appeals to hear the case directly, rather than have it wend through a slow-moving judicial system. The city may have shaved years from the date when same-sex marriages become legal in this state.

    Others, though, have already given up on Bloomberg. Bob Zuckerman, a board member of the Stonewall Democrats of New York, is convinced that the mayor has lost the overwhelming majority of the gay vote. "Many in the community thought that the mayor was doing a good job overall—but not now."

    It hasn't helped that Bloomberg had riled gay voters before. There was the Equal Benefits bill, for one, which would have required contractors doing $100,000 worth of business in the city to offer domestic partnership benefits to gay employees. When the council passed it last year, Bloomberg vetoed it. When the council overrode his veto, he sued. He followed a similar pattern with the Dignity for All Students Act, an anti-bullying bill that would have benefited gay kids. Bloomberg's handling of the gay marriage ruling, activists say, further exposes the mayor as a hypocrite.

    Conservatives, likewise, say the mayor's handling of the ruling by itself may not be all that damaging. But coupled with his other stances—he's pro-choice, pro-gun control, anti-death penalty—his latest action seems another example of an inability to stand for core Republican values. Oddo, the Republican councilmember, says he doubts that people in his "mostly family-oriented" Staten Island district "stood up and were out of their gourds" because of Bloomberg's statement. "But when you put it alongside his other positions, it's problematic."

    What all this agitation means for Bloomberg's survival is anyone's guess. His Democratic challengers—from Miller to Freddy Ferrer to Virginia Fields—have gotten mileage out of Bloomberg's say-one-thing-do-another approach, calling press conferences, attending gay rights rallies, issuing condemning statements. Yet they could pay a price too, because not all Democrats—especially in the outer boroughs—embrace gay marriage.

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