N.Y. Lawmakers Explain Votes On Gay Marriage

State lawmakers made New York the sixth and largest state to legalize gay marriage on Friday night. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with two Republican state senators: Jim Alesi, who voted for the measure, and Dean Skelos, who voted against it.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

ANDREW CUOMO: Ayes, 33; nays, 29.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: That was the scene last night in Albany, as New York became the largest state in the country to allow gay people to marry. We'll talk about the national implications of that move, with James Fallows of The Atlantic, in a few minutes. But first, to New York...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: USA. USA. USA. USA.

(Soundbite of pounding gavel)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If I could have your attention.

PEOPLE: USA. USA. USA.

(Soundbite of pounding gavel)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, if we just...

MARTIN: ...and to the moment just before midnight, when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed his name to legislation that makes New York the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

CUOMO: Democracy works when the people speak. And the people spoke in volumes over these past few months, and this legislature responded this week to their calls.

MARTIN: Democratic State Senator Thomas Duane sponsored the bill.

TOMAS DUANE: What this bill will do is say that we are family, in a way that no other word can.

MARTIN: A key turning point in the negotiations came when the Republicans added language that protects religious organizations and affiliated groups from any legal action if they refuse to be involved with gay marriages. In the end, the vote was 33 to 29. Every Democrat in the state Senate but one supported the measure, along with four Republicans. Jim Alesi was one of those four. He represents the 55th District, around Rochester, New York. This is the same guy who just two years ago, voted against gay marriage when the legislature took it up then.

JIM ALESI: In my heart and in my soul, I was a yes vote. I just had to stay with my conference and keep it a no vote. You know, what I remember now is that I just couldn't get the words - no out. I finally just held my head in my hands, and the person sitting next to me gave me kind of a nudge and said hey, are you going to vote or not here? And I remember then, just saying no. But it was very contrary to how I felt, and contrary to my true beliefs. So that's the world of politics.

MARTIN: Sure. So it was a political decision back then.

ALESI: It was a political vote. Yes.

MARTIN: So what changed for you? Now in 2011, you voted differently. Why?

ALESI: Well, it's an interesting set of circumstances. The Republicans are back in the majority so we're the ones - through my leader, Dean Skelos - who determined that we could bring this bill to the floor not as a political ploy, but to serve the wishes and needs of all the people in New York State. So even though there were only four Republicans that voted for it, the bill would never have passed if it hadn't been brought to the floor by the Republican majority.

MARTIN: Can you describe for us what it was like in the state Capitol Friday night? What was the scene like?

ALESI: I think it was a cross between New Year's Eve and Election Night, for the people that were happy. And you know, for the people that were unhappy, it was kind of a sense it was the seventh game of the World Series, and their favorite team just lost.

MARTIN: When you look at where the Republican Party is nationally on this issue, you seem to be moving in the opposite direction. How do you see your vote supporting gay marriage fitting into the larger Republican agenda right now?

ALESI: Yes, it's true. We need far more Republicans to take a position like I took because we are public figures, and express our support for what we believe serves the best interest of all Americans - which is to extend freedom and equality to everybody. But when you talk about the Republican Party, you have to also acknowledge that Barack Obama himself still will not endorse marriage equality. So it's not just Republicans on a national level.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. You have said, Senator Alesi, that this vote that took place Friday night, when you voted in favor of gay marriage, was the most meaningful and important vote that you've cast in your entire political career. Yet there are some saying that it could actually mean your political undoing.

The conservative party chairman in Monroe County, which is your county, told local newspapers last week that, quote: There is no way Jim Alesi will be re-elected - and that essentially, your vote on this issue was already inspiring political challengers to your seat. Did you know that, going into this vote? Were you prepared for that?

ALESI: Yes, I did. I gave him a courtesy call because I have been endorsed by the conservative party in the past. And you know, the response I got is a response that I expected. Now, we'll wait and see. I mean, that election isn't going to happen for a year and a half. And between now and then, I think what will have to come to the forefront of the conservatives' level of consciousness is this: If you want to take out the four Republicans that voted for this by running against them, or denying them your support, on one issue and one issue alone, then you will destroy the Republican majority in the state Senate. And I think that that will also deprive a superb governor the opportunity to work well with both houses of the legislature.

MARTIN: You gave a very enthusiastic endorsement there for Governor Cuomo, and you talk about him as a kind of new breed of Democrat, who's a fiscal conservative, a social progressive. Is that a space that you could occupy? Have you considered switching parties?

ALESI: No. I have not considered switching parties. I think that it's more important for me to stay as a Republican so I can fulfill my mission of travelling around the country as a Republican senator, and tell other legislators that are Republicans: You can do this, too. It's not the end of your life. So if I were to switch parties, then that would deflate the credibility I would have as an emissary for equal justice in America.

MARTIN: Jim Alesi is state senator from New York. He was one of four Republicans who voted in favor of the state's new law allowing gay couples to marry in the state of New York. Senator Alesi, thanks very much for being with us.

ALESI: Thank you.

MARTIN: State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is one Republican who did not change his mind. I called him at his home in Long Island, to get his take on the vote.

DEAN SKELOS: Number one, I believe in - marriage should be between a man and a woman. But I also, as the majority leader, took a position probably a year ago that this is truly a vote of conscience, and that if my conference decided that it should come out for a vote - which I thought it should - it would go up or down based on whatever anybody said rather than my dictate. And it passed.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me about that. I understand that as majority leader, you could have blocked this vote from even happening. Why was it important for you to allow it to come to the floor?

SKELOS: Well, because I believe in democracy. I don't believe that as the majority leader, that I should have dictatorial powers over legislation whether it should come to the floor or not come to the floor.

MARTIN: Republican State Senator Dean Skelos of New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

SKELOS: Nice to be with you.

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