At rally, Lesniak reignites marriage equality legislation: 22 Ds, but Rs need some work

HOBOKEN – State Sen. Ray Lesniak, (D-20), of Elizabeth, said Sunday that he will begin work on another legislative run at marriage equality in New Jersey.

Lesniak said he can count on 22 of 24 Democrats in the Senate, although he wouldn’t name the outliers. But by name, Lesniak called out Republicans at a waterfront rally here to celebrate the passage and enactment of New York’s marriage equality law.

“We need five Republicans,” Lesniak told the crowd, which included U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, (D-NJ), U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, (D-6), and host Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. Lesniak listed Republicans who need to be pressed for their support for the Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act, which failed to gain passage in January 2010: Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., (R-21), Union; and state Sens. Diane Allen, (R-7), Edgewater Park; Kip Bateman, (R-16), Somerville; and Andy Ciesla, (R-10), Brick.

Sponsored by Lesniak and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37), of Teaneck, the bill was primed for approval in the Senate but fell short of the necessary votes in the waning hours due to several changes of heart.

State Sen. President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, recently noted on the floor of the Senate that his abstention on that issue was the “biggest mistake” of his political career.

“I made a decision purely based on political calculation to not vote for marriage equality,” Sweeney said. “I failed in my responsibility as majority leader to actually lead. I was wrong.” Along with Sweeney, most of South Jersey’s Democratic contingent withdrew their votes in favor, with the exception of state Sen. Jim Whelan, (D-2), of Atlantic City.

Advocacy group Garden State Equality filed another challenge to the state’s exclusion of gay couples in marriage rights with the state Supreme Court, which legal analysts said has little chance of succeeding mostly due to the new constitution of the bench, including Christie’s first appointee, Anne Patterson.

On Sunday, Lesniak said the state would pass the marriage equality law before Gov. Chris Christie left office, “and that can’t be soon enough.”

Christie is on record saying he would not sign the law, telling “Meet the Press” that the state would continue to pursue civil unions and that marriage should be between a man and a woman. “I am not a fan of same-sex marriage. It’s not something that I support,” Christie said.

On the Republicans side, only former state Sen. Bill Baroni, (R-14), of Hamilton, voted in favor of the bill, although several GOP lawmakers had previously committed to voting for the law, including Bateman and state Sen. Jennifer Beck, (R-12), of Red Bank.

The issue has become a campaign topic for Beck, whose Democratic challenger in November, Ray Santiago, said at the rally that the vote would likely come back to haunt Beck in a district with a consistently increasing population of gay voters in towns such as Asbury Park, Ocean Grove and Red Bank.

“Jen Beck voted against human rights,” Santiago said. “She put her finger up in the air and she felt the breeze…I stand for equal rights for everybody.”

According to reports, which have not been confirmed by the Governor’s Office, Christie leaned on some of the Republicans to vote against the bill as he was preparing to take office, but this time Lesniak is asking the governor to channel his inner Tom Kean Sr.

Lesniak said when he was in the Assembly and the body gave state approval for moments of silence in public schools, at the time a very divisive issue, Gov. Tom Kean vetoed the bill, but noted in his letter that Republicans should feel free to vote their conscience on the issue.

“That’s all I would ask Gov. Christie to do,” Lesniak told State Street Wire. “If he does that, I think it will pass (an override vote).”

As in New Jersey, lawmakers and advocates in Maryland, Maine and Rhode Island are trying to capitalize on the momentum of the New York law’s passage.

Lesniak – with Weinberg – also co-authored the book, “What’s Love Got to Do with it? The Case for Same Sex Marriage,” which was released late last year.

“You just gotta believe,” Lesniak told the crowd. “You gotta believe.”

At rally, Lesniak reignites marriage equality legislation: 22 Ds, but Rs need some work