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.”
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.
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.”
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.
The real wild card is Republican primary challenger Tom Ognibene, the former GOP leader of the City Council, who is coming at Bloomberg from the right. Hardcore conservatives are convinced that plenty of churchgoing blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Russians, Italians, and Irish may now think twice about Bloomberg. It’s unlikely the party establishment would embrace the relatively untested Ognibene over the battle-proven incumbent. But if he can pound home his message well enough, he could knock Bloomberg off the Republican line. Already the Queens GOP club has backed Ognibene. How many voters go along remains to be seen.