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The Perfect Storm is Coming: Why New York's Legislative Chaos May Be Good News for Marriage Equality

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For months now, gay rights advocates in New York have been pulling strings, marshaling forces, and lobbying moderate state senators to make 2009 the year the Empire State finally passes marriage equality. Two weeks ago, all our dreams seemed to come crashing down in the midst of a legislative circus -- and yet June 24 may be the day they come true at last.

When two State Senate Democrats bolted the party a couple of weeks ago, it sounded like the death knell for same-sex marriage. Marriage equality had stalled for years under Republican control of the Senate, and only the brand-new, Obama-era Democratic majority had made it seem achievable. (The Democrats have controlled the State Assembly for ages, and the pro-gay-marriage vote is an annual ritual.) All signs suggested that this was it. Destiny on our side, votes on our column, winds of change... a storm was finally coming, and the forecast looked good.

But then came the last month. After two weeks of bickering, the New York State Senate has been an embarrassing spectacle for all of us, with locked chamber doors, stolen gavels, parallel legislative sessions, shouting matches, and more pushing and shoving than the 6 train in rush hour. Gay advocates felt despondent. All that work, only to have our issue drowned out in a partisan circus that been labeled "chaos" "disgusting" and "pathetic" by major news outlets.

But actually, this may be just the time, and just the circumstances, for marriage equality in New York. It's not just a storm coming -- it's a perfect storm.

First, New York's accidental governor, David Paterson, suffering from the "wimp factor" of late, has talked tough, forcing the Senate into special sessions this week. Today he announced that he wants the same-sex marriage bill to go to the floor -- now. This makes perfect sense. Paterson wants marriage equality, not only because he's been a longtime supporter of the cause, but because he might just salvage a win here -- and look strong doing it.

Both parties in the Senate face the same political calculus. Each party is accusing the other of obstructing the state's business, and New Yorkers are more ready than ever to throw all the bums out. (Even the usually partisan New York Post screamed "A Pox on Both Their Houses.") So now everyone wants to get something done -- and compared with the state budget and the proposal to expand the powers of New York City's mayor, same-sex marriage is a walk in Central Park. Hard to believe, but same-sex marriage may be the least controversial way for an embattled State Senate to prove it can actually do something.

Moreover, at a moment of extreme partisanship, this is not a partisan issue. Several moderate Republicans have been conspicuous in their non-opposition to marriage equality, perhaps sensing that the political winds have indeed shifted, and hedging their bets. (More cynically, not taking a position enables these centrists to wheel and deal their vote more effectively.) Meanwhile, the most vocal opponent of same-sex marriage is a Democrat, Ruben Diaz, Sr. What better way to rise above partisanship than this? And what better time than now?

In an ordinary moment, one could expect the Republican moderates to retreat to their base, or for the Senate to simply punt on the issue. But now is not an ordinary moment. Never have so many different forces in Albany had so many different reasons to reach the same result. This is true right up to the top -- Pedro Espada, the turncoat Senator whose switch precipitated this whole mess, has himself called for a vote on the issue, and supports the bill.

This isn't how we wanted it to happen. Marriage equality advocates have tried for years to paint this cause as an ethical issue: one of equality, basic rights, and justice. We didn't want it to pass because of political arithmetic, or because this is the easiest distraction with which to Wag the Dog. But hey, this is New York. Forty years after the Stonewall riots, maybe June 24 will go down in history after all.