Although personally opposed, Sarlo admits ‘tide has turned’ on marriage equality

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) took two bathroom breaks and grabbed a slice of pizza but otherwise stayed planted in the chairman's chair from 1 p.m. to 10 at night Monday when the Senate Judiciary Committee ulitmately passed a marriage equality bill out of committee, a bill Sarlo personally opposes for "religious beliefs."

Sarlo said he received calls of congratulations this morning from both an archbishop antagonistic to the bill, and from members of Garden State Equality – the gay rights group backing the historic measure.

"Both sides are thrilled and said I couldn't have done a better job," said Sarlo, who did have to turn the microphone off during the testimony of one rabbi who called the gay marriage bill barbaric.

"We had 300 people there, 150 of whom we allowed to testify. We'd still be debating it today, right now, but when I knew the bill had the votes, I pulled the trigger. Yes, I am opposed to the bill at this point in time, but their (Garden State Equality) advocacy has come a long way, and I am quite certain some time in the near future, I believe the tide has turned a little bit, and they will win with their issue. I am still opposed personally because of my religious beliefs as a Roman Catholic, and as senator of the 36th District, which is mostly made up of Irish and Italian Catholics, and Orthodox Jews."

Notwithstanding his own stance on the issue, Sarlo said he was pleased that he posted the bill – in part, he said, to fulfill a promise to state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth).

"I did not want to stand in the way of this bill, and I notified all my committee members after my decision, which came Wednesday or Thursday of last week," said the judiciary chairman.

Now, as Sarlo departs judiciary to next year take the helm of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, he said, "Two of the most rewarding experiences for the rest of my life were presiding over (State Supreme Court Justice Barry) Albin's marathon re-nomination and presiding over the hearings yesterday. Those are two events that will shape the future of New Jersey. I am happy that I am not leaving judiciary, and I'm looking forward to vetting the new administration as a member of the committee. I'm also looking forward to rising to the challenge of balancing the state budget.

"I agree (with Gov.-elect Chris Christie) that everything's on the table," added Sarlo when asked about the job security of state employees, "but I don't believe in making anyone the scapegoat, and the governor in a very short time will have to lay out some specifics. He made a commitment during the campaign to roll back the millionaires tax and keep rebates and put money into the pension fund, and I don't see how you do all that and balance the budget."

Asked if he thought extensive media coverage of the marriage equality bill would weaken Democrats among working class voters keyed into the economy, Sarlo said no.

"The issue has been on the table for the last 18 months and you know what, we had to bring it to a head and we had to bring it to a debate," he said. "As incoming chair of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, my work on this issue is done. My energy will now be focused on working with the Christie Administration to address the fiscal crisis."

Crisis is an operative word – or condition – for Sarlo, who in 2008weathered an episode of exhaustion that found him in the hospital on life support while two other political figures from Bergen County – former Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Ferriero and former state Sen. JosephConiglio (D-Parmus) both collapsed in separate trials spearheaded by then U.S. Attorney Christie's office.

The South Bergen Democrat insisted the history there with Christie and the fall of his friends will provide no impediment to his own relationship with the incoming governor.

"No impact at all," Sarlo said. "The governor won and there's a mandate from the people. He won. As deputy majority leader and as chair of the budget committee I look forward to working with the governor-elect – and I will not turn my back on my Democratic values. …We're very pleased with the results of 36th Assembly race, which the GOP targeted and we overcame. We overcame the Christie onslaught and both of our candidates (Assemblyman Gary Schaer and Assemblyman Fred Scalera) won Nutley (where Christie won)."

Sarlo said he also looks forward to a continued relationship with state Senate President Richard Codey (D-Roseland), which was lately and seemingly perpetually strained.

Described by Sarlo as "always a supporter," Codey originally thought he could count on Sarlo's support for leadership when the final version of a dual office holding reform bill contained a grandfather clause protecting – among others – Sarlo, who serves as Wood-Ridge mayor in addition to holding the senate seat in District 36. Sarlo's elevation to the Judiciary Committee chairmanship earlier this year was another Codey effort to keep Sarlo corralled in his corner as Sweeney stepped up the phone calls with proffered favors to key members of the Democratic caucus in an effort to woo them away from Codey.

When state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) backed Sweeney over Codey in exchange for the Senate Majority leader position, that opened up the budget chairmanship, which Sweeney dangled for Sarlo in exchange for his support.

Sarlo, along the way relishing his wildcard role as more players began to pile up on the Sweeney side of the ledger against an ultimately unsuccessful Codey, picked the winning team.

His employment for contractor Joseph Sanzari always straightens the backs of Trenton watchers on development issues, but Sarlo said "all of our work is closed bid work. We're closed and sealed. We are not developers, we do heavy, complex construction projections: bridges, highways, roads, concrete. When I wake up in the morning, I'm up at the crack of dawn after I work out at 4:30 in the morning. I love the challenges of construction projects, and while I may be in a suit and tie, I'm always prepared to jump in there to solve complex engineering issues."

At a packed, energized Sarlo for state Senate 2011 fundraiser last Wednesday keynoted by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the senator said he had 350 people in attendance and raised close to $100,000. "And that's $100,000 in a bad economy," Sarlo pointed out.

"I enjoy the role I am in now and really look forward to the challenges of working on Steve Sweeney's leadership team, and of being a part of the Democratic Party," he added. "I don't know whether I'm going to run for mayor of Wood-ridge again. It's too early to tell, but this is the town I was born and raised in, and in which I'm raising my children. I'm more involved than ever, and there's a lot of work that I still want to complete in Wood-ridge, and I will decide whether I want to run again in two years. Ultimately, the people will decide."

Although personally opposed, Sarlo admits ‘tide has turned’ on marriage equality