Saturday, June 25, 2011

One for the Good Guys
Maybe it's a good thing that the actual moments in which society takes measurable steps forward are often about as dramatic as watching a guy carrying groceries and dry cleaning root through his pockets looking for his keys. So it was when the New York State Senate voted to enact marriage equality last night. Senator Stephen Saland, a moderate Republican whose district runs along the Hudson below Albany, provided the decisive 32nd vote that put the bill over the top after negotiating an amendment that allayed fears of liability on the part of religious institutions, and gave remarks that, on the page, seem fairly stirring. In the delivery, however, he may as well have been proposing to name a post office after some 19th century burgher, except that my guess is he'd have spoken with more passion. Tom Duane, the sponsor of the measure who's spent years fighting for a right intensely personal to him, was only slightly less subdued. Of the main characters, the only one who even sort of played his part was incomparable asshole Ruben Diaz Sr., an unashamed bigot who was petulant, incoherent and obnoxious as one would expect, though more regarding Senate procedure than the measure itself.

But this isn't about the moment; it's about the magnitude of what it accomplished. The vote came after days of stalemate, during which I'd drawn the conclusion that Senate Republicans--caught between the promises of the Conservative Party to deny them ballot access if they voted to allow same sex marriage, and the implied threat of their biggest funder, Mayor Bloomberg, to withdraw support if they didn't--would simply run out the clock and not bring it up for a vote. That they didn't is a tribute both to Governor Cuomo, whose actions backed up his stated commitment to equality (and who can count on some deep-pocketed friends with long memories when he runs for president in five years), and to Dean Skelos, the Republican Senate leader who voted against the measure but neither strong-armed his members to do the same nor pushed hard to avoid the vote.

For the state Senate Republicans, holding onto an artificial one-vote majority thanks to gerrymandering but fenced in by demographics and the increasing distance between the New York electorate (even outside the City) and their national party, there was no winning move here: vote yes, and lose a sizable chunk of their current support that they can't afford to part with, but vote no and face a furious financial and electoral onslaught when everyone's up again next year, led by a very popular governor. Skelos probably played it as well as possible: members like freshman Michael Grisanti, the Buffalo Republican representing a strongly Democratic district who provided the symbolically important 33rd vote, surely improved his chances to survive when trends don't favor Republicans nearly as strongly as they did in 2010. (Grisanti was also by far the best speaker of any who took the floor last night.) The Times also suggests that Republican Wall Street donors cultivated by Cuomo played a role almost as decisive as that of the governor himself.

It's no news to anyone who reads this page that I am not generally optimistic about the future of our society, particularly in its political guise--largely because we're well on the way toward making Margaret Thatcher's famous quip that "there's no such thing as society" a self-fulfilling prophesy. One can guess the view of Zaphod Beeblebrox on taxes; that's us now. Each of us sees himself as the Most Important Being in the Universe, with individual imperatives that cannot be violated. Economically, this is leading us toward a disaster that could hit as soon as this summer... yet, socially, it's taking us to a better place. (The Times story notes that the Wall Street big shots "were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views.") In a moment where we should take our satisfactions and signs of progress wherever we can, this is worth celebrating.

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