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In close vote, N.Y. OK’s gay marriage

State now sixth, and largest in US, to adopt measure

Supporters of New York’s same-sex marriage bill celebrated in Albany after the state Senate approved the measure. Supporters of New York’s same-sex marriage bill celebrated in Albany after the state Senate approved the measure. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)
By Nicholas Confessore and Michael Barbaro
New York Times / June 25, 2011

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ALBANY, N.Y. — Lawmakers voted late yesterday to legalize same-sex marriage, making New York the largest state where gay and lesbian couples will be able to wed and giving the national gay-rights movement new momentum from the state where it was born.

The same-sex marriage bill was approved on a 33-29 vote, as four Republican state senators joined 29 Democrats in voting for the bill.

As the Senate debated the measure, supporters and opponents from around the state packed into two small galleries overlooking the chamber. When the final vote tally was read, the crowd screamed and hollered, began to chant “USA! USA!’’ — and to yell “thank you.’’ A minute or two later, when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo entered the chamber, the crowd cheered again, rushing the edge of the galleries and chanting the governor’s name.

Senate approval was the final hurdle for the same-sex marriage legislation, which is strongly supported by Cuomo and was approved last week by the Assembly. Cuomo is expected to sign the measure soon, and the law will go into effect 30 days later, meaning that same-sex couples could begin marrying in New York by midsummer.

Passage of same-sex marriage here followed a daunting run of defeats in other states where voters barred same-sex marriage by legislative action, constitutional amendment, or referendum. Just five states permit same-sex marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia.

“I am very proud of New York and the statement we made to the nation today,’’ Cuomo said.

The approval of same-sex marriage represented a reversal of fortune for gay-rights advocates, who just two years ago suffered a humiliating and unexpected defeat when a same-sex marriage bill was easily voted down in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats. This year, with the Senate controlled by Republicans, the odds against passage of same-sex marriage appeared long.

The unexpected victory had an unlikely champion: Cuomo, a Democrat who pledged last year to support same-sex marriage but whose early months in office were dominated by intense battles with lawmakers and some labor unions over spending cuts.

Cuomo made same-sex marriage one of his top priorities for the year and deployed his top aide to coordinate the efforts of a half-dozen local gay-rights organizations whose feuding and disorganization had been blamed in part for the 2009 defeat.

The new coalition of same-sex marriage supporters also brought in one of Cuomo’s trusted campaign operatives to supervise a $3 million television and radio campaign aimed at persuading a handful of Republican and Democratic senators to drop their opposition.

For Senate Republicans, even bringing the measure to the floor was a freighted decision. Most of the Republicans firmly oppose same-sex marriage on moral grounds, and many of them also had political concerns, fearing that allowing same-sex marriage to pass on their watch would embitter conservative voters and cost the Republican Party its one-seat majority in the Senate. Leaders of the state’s Conservative Party, the support of which many Republican lawmakers depend on to win election, warned that they would oppose in legislative elections next year any Republican senator who voted for same-sex marriage.

But after days of agonized discussion capped by a marathon nine-hour, closed-door debate yesterday, Republicans came to a fateful decision. The full Senate would be allowed to vote on same-sex marriage, the majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, said yesterday afternoon, and each member would be left to vote according to his conscience.

“The days of just bottling up things and using these as excuses not to have votes — as far as I’m concerned as leader, its over with,’’ said Skelos, a Long Island Republican.

The four Republicans who voted for the measure were James S. Alesi of Monroe County; Stephen B. Saland, from the Hudson Valley area; Roy J. McDonald of the capital region; and Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo.

Just one lawmaker rose to speak against the measure: Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, the only Democratic senator to cast a “no’’ vote.

“God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage, a long time ago,’’ Diaz said.

But Grisanti, who opposed gay marriage when he ran for election last year, said he had studied the issue closely, agonized over his responsibility as a lawmaker, and concluded he could not vote against the bill. Grisanti voted yes.

“I apologize for those who feel offended,’’ Grisanti said. “I cannot deny, a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, the people of my district and across this state, the State of New York, and those people who make this the great state that it is, the same rights that I have with my wife.’’

The legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States is a relatively recent goal of the gay-rights movement, but over the past few years, gay-rights organizers have placed it at the center of their agenda, steering money and muscle into dozens of state capitals in an often uphill effort to persuade lawmakers.

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