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Long IslandPolitics

Lobbying LI state senators on gay marriage

Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, waits in the NY

Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, waits in the NY Senate chamber in Albany. (June 11, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

ALBANY - Advocates for same-sex marriage say the Long Island delegation will be key not only to bringing the issue to a Senate vote this year, but also its passage.

"It's not only key, but it has to happen that way," said Jeff Friedman, president of Marriage Equality New York, a political-action committee, meaning that his side is sunk without Long Island support. The group had 300 members lobbying this week, its largest turnout ever.

Recent polls show that statewide New Yorkers support same-sex marriage about 57 percent to 38 percent. But support is even higher in the New York suburbs - 61 percent, according to the Siena College Research Institute. That has fueled activists' efforts to focus on Long Island.

"Right now, Long Island is in a situation where there isn't a single senator on record in favor of marriage equality," said Ross Levi of Empire State Pride Agenda, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. "And I believe that's out of step with where Long Islanders are on this issue."

Last week, sporting red and white " 'I do' Support Marriage Equality" buttons, members of Marriage Equality New York staked out the hall near the Senate Republican conference room, collaring rank-and-file lawmakers with a friendly "Hi, senator. I have some people I'd like you to meet."

Eventually, the group got part of what they wanted: 10 minutes of private face time with the Senate's leader, Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

Though they emerged with no promises, they say they are optimistic that gay marriage will come up some time this year. "He said he'd bring it to his conference," said Joe Reilly, a Republican from Cedarhurst, whose son is gay.

Skelos went further Thursday by saying he anticipated that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would introduce a gay marriage bill this session. Skelos said he would give it to Sen. Thomas Duane (D-Manhattan) to sponsor. Duane is the lone openly gay state senator.

Skelos opposes the measure but said he'd bring it to a Senate vote if his Republican conference favored such a bill. He repeated that pledge Thursday at a breakfast.

"At some point we will conference it and make a decision as to whether it will come out for a vote," Skelos said. "I personally don't have a problem with it coming out for a vote, but that will be the decision of the conference."

In 2009, when the issue came to the Senate floor, the only two Long Island senators to vote in favor were Democrats Craig Johnson and Brian Foley, but both lost their re-election bids in November. All seven Long Island Republicans voted no as the measure went down, 38-24. The overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly has easily passed it before.

Even opponents say the focus now will be on suburban senators.

"I'm sure supporters would like to make Long Island the battleground," said the Rev. Duane Motley, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a clergy-based lobbying group that opposes same-sex marriage. But "I don't think there's much movement on this," Motley said.

But supporters point to polls and say the climate is different. "A year ago was too early," Friedman said. "The time is right now."

"We think people want to be with us," added David Contreras Turley of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights group that also was working the Senate halls. "It's almost past the tipping point. The majority of the state is ready to support this."

Skelos and Cuomo have stressed that they consider the state budget - the $10-billion deficit - the top legislative priority. But the governor reiterated this week that he'll work to pass gay marriage this year.

"I want to see it become the law on the state of New York and we're going to take it up this session," Cuomo said after an appearance at Hofstra University. "We're going to be working very hard to pass it."

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