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Finally, courage emerges in Albany over gay marriage debate

 

    Daily News: Finally, courage emerges in Albany over gay marriage debate

    By Errol Louis

    Emotions and political stakes will be running high today as Gov. Paterson formally launches his campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in New York.

    If Paterson is successful, the Empire State will become by far the most populous  state to sanction gay marriage, joining Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont.

    That would catapult Paterson into the national spotlight as a civil rights champion and shore up his sagging poll numbers in advance of next year's elections.

    "This, I think, will be the defining moment in the governor's career," said Sen. Thomas Duane, the openly gay Manhattan pol who has gamely introduced a marriage equality bill year after year since 2001, only to see it die without so much as a vote in the state Senate.

    "I believe that we can win this year," he told me. "I don't want to lose, and I don't think the gov can afford to lose right now."

    Duane's right: Other than the budget, Paterson's handling of the bill could be the most high-profile issue he touches between now and the 2010 elections.

    And he's not the only one with a lot on the line. Gay marriage, like abortion and the death penalty, is a hot-button question that will force every member of the Legislature to dig deep and decide what they stand for.

    That's a welcome development for a public accustomed to pols who rarely take chances.

    The tricky part, political insiders agree, will be getting the bill through the Senate. (Full disclosure: my wife is a consultant to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.)

    For years, when Republicans controlled the upper house, there were no formal hearings, no debate and no floor vote.

    Squelching debate allowed senators of both parties to posture on the subject. Some gave lip service to the idea of gay marriage, secure in the knowledge that they might never actually have to cast a controversial vote.

    Others avoided friction in their home districts by simply refusing to say how they might vote if the matter ever hit the floor.

    By forcing the issue, Paterson will nudge a number of straddlers off the fence.

    That puts several black senators in an especially tricky position, torn between wanting to support same-sex marriage but wary of the strong sentiment against it in many black churches, which remain the cultural and political base of most black pols.

    Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith knows this better than anyone. His political mentor, former employer and current pastor, the Rev. Floyd Flake, opposes gay marriage - and, presumably, so do many of the nearly 20,000 members of Flake's Allen A.M.E. church.

    "My membership is pretty much conservative, and I think most black church membership is very conservative on that issue," Flake said in a 2004 television interview.

    The numbers support Flake's reading: According to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, only 33% of black New Yorkers think same-sex couples should be allowed to marry - considerably less than the 41% of all voters, and 49% of all Dems, who support gay marriage.

    Smith has openly declared he will try to round up the 32 votes needed for passage, a commendable act of political courage under the circumstances.

    Duane says his thus-far uncommitted black Democratic colleagues - and, for that matter, a number of Republicans - will have to do some soul-searching as the debate proceeds.

    "I think that this is a time and an issue where elected officials, while not totally disregarding politics, actually have to use their own hearts as the deciding factor," he told me. "This vote is an inside job."