December 18, 2009 | by Chris Johnson
Clock is ticking for N.J. marriage bill

The only out lawmaker in the New Jersey Legislature said the state’s pending marriage legislation “could go either way” and cautioned against bringing the bill to a vote if supporters don’t think they have sufficient support.

Reed Gusciora, a gay Democrat and sponsor of the marriage bill in the Assembly, said in an interview with DC Agenda that prospects of passing the legislation dimmed after Gov. Jon Corzine (D) failed in his bid for re-election last month and following losses for same-sex marriage in Maine and New York.

“It could go either way,” he said. “A lot of legislators, unfortunately, are taking a second look at the issue. … There’s always an argument not to do it and to fall in line with these other states.”

Even so, Gusciora, who’s also deputy majority leader of the Assembly, said New Jersey has a chance of passing same-sex marriage because of the Garden State’s liberal leanings.

“It still has a shot because New Jersey, at the end of the day, is a fairly progressive state,” he said. “It’s just a matter of my colleagues voting for the bill, which otherwise they should have.”

Supporters of gay nuptials are under the gun to pass same-sex marriage. Corzine has said he’d sign marriage legislation if it reaches his desk, but his failure to win re-election means he’ll soon leave the governor’s mansion. On Jan. 19, his successor, Republican Chris Christie will take office, and he’s pledged to veto any same-sex marriage bill that passes the legislature.

On Monday, Christie reiterated his opposition to the marriage bill in response to criticism from rock star and New Jersey-native Bruce Springsteen, according to Newark’s Star-Ledger, although Christie’s opposition wasn’t as emphatic as it has been in the past.

“This is where the people of New Jersey obviously have differences of opinion,” Christie was quoted as saying. “There are lots of people who feel very strongly about same-sex marriage and believe it should be the law of the state, and there are lots of folks like me who believe that it shouldn’t.”

Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, declined to describe his organization’s efforts to pass the marriage legislation in the weeks before Christie takes office, saying he didn’t want to tip off opponents to his activities.

“I can inform your audience, which is mostly outside of New Jersey, or I could do what we’re doing, which is continue to work hard to win marriage equality and keep our strategy close to the vest, and that’s what I prefer to do,” he said.

Still, he said he would agree with Gusciora’s assessment that the marriage bill “could go either way,” calling it “an innocuous enough statement.”

“That can be interpreted as anything, so why not agree?” he said.

Gusciora said he thinks the legislature will take up the marriage bill in January when lawmakers return from the holiday recess. He noted that he’s expecting the Assembly to consider the legislation first, followed by action in the Senate.

The State Senate Judiciary Committee last week approved the marriage legislation, 7-6. A Senate floor vote on the bill was initially scheduled for last week, but postponed after supporters said they wanted to wait until the Assembly had public hearings.

Mike BeLoreto, Gusciora’s chief of staff, said he thinks the bill has “a good chance” of passing the Assembly, but in the Senate the situation is “still very close to call.”

“We obviously have more Democratic votes in the Assembly than they do in the Senate, so it gives us a wider margin if some members need to jump off for their own political or personal reasons,” BeLoreto said.

As for the Senate, BeLoreto said a favorable vote in the Assembly “will end up spurring some progress on the Senate side.”

Democrats hold a majority in the State Senate, 23-17. Senate President Richard Codey has said the bill lacks unanimous support among the Democratic caucus and Republican votes are needed to pass the legislation.

Charles Moran, a Log Cabin Republicans spokesperson, said his organization isn’t formally lobbying for the marriage bill because his group doesn’t have a chapter in New Jersey.

Nonetheless, he said he plans to send out an action alert to his group’s members in the state to encourage them to lobby their officials.

“We’re going to start sending out some blasts to all our internal lists of Republicans and say, ‘Contact these state senators and identify yourself as a Republican in support marriage equality,’” he said.

Moran said his group has identified five Senate Republicans that could vote to pass the bill. One is Bill Baroni, the Republican Judiciary Committee member who voted in favor of the legislation, and another is Jennifer Beck, who voted against the legislation in committee but said she’d consider voting for it on the Senate floor.

Gusciora said the bill should be enacted into law as a matter of fairness.

“We recognize Newt Gingrich’s three wives, Rudy Giuliani’s three wives and Britney Spears’ 72 hours of nuptials — and there are plenty of same-sex couples that have been together a lot longer,” Gusciora said. “They pay taxes like everyone else, they raise families, they’re allowed to adopt in this state, so it’s a matter of fairness.”

Still, Gusciora urged advocates not to hold a vote on the bill if support is uncertain.

The wide margin of failure of the marriage bill in the New York State Senate earlier this month, 24-38, spurred some people to question why a vote was taken if there wasn’t an assurance of greater support.

“I’m not into taking names,” Gusciora said. “We already know who’s against it, so I don’t think we have to take the vote. The other thing is that if there isn’t a vote, there’s always an opportunity to revisit the issue, so I would rather us not take the vote.”

Gusciora said the New Jersey state courts could take up the matter should lawmakers fail to act. While no marriage litigation is pending in New Jersey, Gusciora noted that someone could bring the issue before judges.

In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the legislature needed to create some form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples in New Jersey. In response, civil unions were enacted.

“[You] wouldn’t want conservatives to get to say, ‘You had your shot in the legislature, so why are you taking it to the courts?’” Gusciora said. “The court can always revisit the issue and say, ‘You didn’t go far enough — it should indeed be called marriage.’”

But if lawmakers fail to approve the marriage legislation before Jan. 19, Gusciora said it would be “unlikely” that same-sex marriage will happen in New Jersey legislatively before Christie leaves office.

“He said that he would veto the bill if it ever came to his desk, so it’s unlikely in the four or eight years he’ll be governor that he would sign it,” he said. “Things always change with everybody, but he was pretty emphatic.”

Goldstein said he didn’t want to comment on whether the marriage bill could pass during the Christie administration if lawmakers in the upcoming weeks don’t approve the legislation.

“We’re working day and night to pass marriage equality while Jon Corzine is governor,” Goldstein said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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