When a bill legalizing same-sex marriage came up in the New York State Senate in 2009, the measure was defeated by a wide margin. Democratic leaders, who controlled the chamber, failed to muster enough votes on their side, and the entire Republican caucus opposed the bill.
Last week, when the Senate considered legalizing same-sex marriage for a second time, it was the Republicans who made the difference: Four of them joined 29 Democrats to approve the measure, giving the bill enough votes to pass. That startling turnaround capped weeks of intensive lobbying and personal anguish, especially among the Republicans, all of whom had either voted against the bill in 2009 or vowed during their campaigns to oppose same-sex marriage.
Now, fresh off their victory in New York, gay rights advocates are turning to Maryland, where same-sex marriage is “on the verge” of becoming law, according to Patrick Wojahn of Equality Maryland. And some are hoping a similar change of heart among Republicans will tip the balance.
“I think the Republicans can provide crucial votes,” said Allan Kittleman, a Republican member of the Maryland State Senate. “It could be very similar in the Maryland House of Delegates as it was in the New York State Senate, with the final margin being the Republicans.”
Kittleman is the lone Republican lawmaker in Maryland to openly support gay marriage. He voted for the bill in February when it passed the Maryland State Senate, only to stall in the House of Delegates, which is dominated by Democrats. The last nose count before the bill was withdrawn, Kittleman said, had the measure just a few votes shy of the number needed to pass. A handful of persuadable Republicans, he said, could make the difference in the next legislative session.
“There are several members of our legislature who I have talked to — because I certainly was involved in trying to get the House of Delegates to approve it — who are very sympathetic and philosophically agree with my position with supporting same-sex marriage, but felt like they needed to vote the way that their constituents would want them to vote,” Kittleman said.
Those members, Kittleman added, are in a position similar to that of the four New York Republicans: They’ve already vowed publicly to oppose same-sex marriage and are afraid to go back on their word. “They feel that they’ve made a commitment and they don’t want to go against what they committed,” Kittleman said. “Many of them told me point blank they would support civil unions, but they just couldn’t go to the full extent of marriage equality.”
Kittleman knows the kind of backlash they’re facing. In January, he shocked his Republican colleagues in the Senate by joining the Democratic majority leader at a press conference to announce his support for same-sex marriage. He later forfeited his post as the leader of the Republican caucus out of deference to the other members, all of whom opposed the bill (he says he resigned voluntarily and was not forced out). The National Organization for Marriage, meanwhile, pledged to oppose him in his next campaign.
Part of the reason the Republican votes could end up being so crucial is the considerable sway African-American churches hold among Democrats in the House of Delegates. When the same-sex marriage bill was withdrawn in March, about a third of the chamber’s Democrats opposed it, and national groups that had been fighting the measure specifically cited the influence of African-American pastors. Backers, meanwhile, estimated that they were as little as two or three votes away from passage. If religious leaders continue to voice fierce opposition to the bill, it could fall to a few moderate Republicans to make up the difference.
Kittleman’s experience, then, may be instructive for other Republicans in Maryland and around the country who are sympathetic to the idea of granting equal rights to same-sex couples but are reluctant to break from party orthodoxy. The Howard County Republican is in many ways a staunch ideological conservative: He has fiercely opposed tax hikes and spending increases, supported legislation that would require employers to verify the immigration status of job applicants, and sponsored a so-called “right to work” measure that has been reviled by labor unions as a pernicious attempt to erode the collective bargaining rights of workers.
His Republican credentials are well established, Kittleman said, which lends him some credibility with his colleagues when he argues that supporting same-sex marriage is consistent with conservative principles, such as personal freedom and restricted government
“I think I’m being a very consistent Republican by saying I want freedom economically, I don’t want the government’s overbearing regulations on businesses, I want people to be able to do things in their business life without a lot of government intrusion, but I feel the same way about their personal life,” Kittleman said. “And so I think me being in favor of same-sex marriage is consistent with my Republican philosophy that the government shouldn’t be telling people what to do.”
The problem, of course, is insulating those Republicans who side with Kittleman from the political repercussions of their decisions. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo put his considerable popularity at stake to defend the bill and those who supported it, and courted key Republican donors who likewise promised to support any Republican who voted for gay marriage. A similar effort — in which Gov. Martin O’Malley puts his political capital at stake to fight for the bill and protect Republicans, and gay rights advocates band together under the umbrella of one disciplined, grassroots organization — is needed in Maryland, Kittleman said.
“I actually don’t believe that our governor made a strong effort. He said that he would sign the bill, but I didn’t see a lot of real boots-on-the-ground work to get the votes needed,” Kittleman said. “I think if he would push for it more strenuously, then maybe they’d be able to get the couple votes they need.”
Of course, there is no Shield of Achilles that will protect Republicans who vote for same-sex marriage from the political backlash that will ensue. New York’s Republicans knew that and cast their votes anyway.
Republicans in Maryland, Kittleman said, could learn from their experience.
“It’d be interesting to see the reaction that those Republican lawmakers from New York are getting from their constituents,” Kittleman said. “I’d probably like to find out if any of those Republican members would be willing to come and talk to some of our Republican members.”