Lentol’s Quiet Legacy on Marriage Equality
This month on June 24, we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the passage of the New York State Marriage Equality Act, the bill that legalized same-sex marriage in the Empire State and ushered in the recognition under the law that we now take as a given, if not for granted. There were many pioneers and advocacy groups along the way that worked hard and sacrificed for this legislation including the Empire State Pride Agenda, Freedom to Marry, Marriage Equality NY, and Brooklyn’s own Lambda Independent Democrats, groups that came to Albany every session and met with every legislator whether they were pro, con or in between. Standing here 10 years later in 2021, it is easy to be absorbed with the litany of social problems our city and nation face today, and those issues deserve to be addressed. But let’s also take a moment to celebrate the anniversary of a momentous law that has profoundly improved the lives of countless New Yorkers in the past decade, and which will continue to do so for generations to come.
From 2006 to 2020, I worked for Assemblyman Joe Lentol in his district office, and marriage equality was one of the issues I remember most vividly from those early years as a junior staff member. Advocates and opponents would come around every so often expressing their support or opposition to the bill, as well as the occasional “political advisor” (read neighborhood busybody) offering unsolicited advice to Lentol on how to get out of voting on the bill to avoid the dangers of taking a side. Certainly, voting against it would have been the safe thing to do. But Lentol voted for it.
Why, you might ask, was supporting the Marriage Equality Act a politically risky move? Before I explain, I should first tell you that in addition to being a former Lentol staff member I am also a Ph.D. and professor of political science who has spent many years studying legislatures and who has more than just a passing interest in matters of such historical significance. And make no mistake, this was significant. Simply put, Lentol was one of the first crossover votes to lead the way in the Assembly.
Most observers probably expected Lentol to vote against the bill because of the demographics of his district, which included large Catholic and Hasidic constituencies that would be unhappy with a yes vote on same-sex marriage. Both of those groups are relatively conservative in their politics, but nonetheless largely registered as Democrats, and losing their votes in a primary election could have ended Lentol’s political career. He had a primary election the year before in 2010, which to be fair, Lentol won easily. But he also had the stinging memory of a pair of knockdown, drag out primaries in 1980 and 1982 that he barely won. Ask any elected official who’s been in office for more than a few cycles and they will have a “fight of my life” election story from somewhere in their past. Those elections are the ones that stay with them in the back of their minds and whisper warnings of caution: ‘Don’t to that, don’t vote like that. Think about the next election and what voters will think!’ Another primary in 2012 was within the realm of possibility, especially with a good issue on which a challenger could attack.
But Lentol saw marriage equality as a civil rights issue, and if the State Legislature had voted no, future generations would look back and wonder how they got it so wrong. Ironically, the issue now being taken care of it seems like people have forgotten this was a game-changing bill in 2011.
At the time, same-sex marriage was a political third rail issue nationally, and it wasn’t going anywhere at the federal level. The standing law of the land was the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed by both the House of Representatives and the US Senate with bipartisan, veto-proof majorities and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton. It defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, and denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, several states had instituted bans: Maryland, Minnesota and Utah before DOMA, and Alaska, Hawaii, Missouri and Nevada afterwards. Only five states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont — and Washington D.C. had legalized same-sex marriage by 2011. A 2004 attempt by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to institute same sex-marriage in his city was invalidated by the California Supreme Court later that same year, showing just how unpopular this policy was.
The New York State Marriage Equality Act was passed in the State Assembly on June 15, 2011 by a relatively thin margin of 80 to 63. For those of you not in the know, the Assembly has a membership of 150, and for any bill to pass the chamber it needs 76 yes votes (because 76 is equal to half plus one), which means that the bill passed the Assembly by just five votes. Five votes. In a chamber that at the time had over 100 Democratic members. That means a lot of Democrats did not support this bill. And that is how it had been ever since 2007 when the Marriage Equality Act was first introduced by bill sponsor Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell. In some of the years prior to 2011 there were more yes votes on the bill, but those were years when everyone knew the bill would not pass the Republican-controlled State Senate, so a yes vote in the Assembly wasn’t really potentially career-ending until 2011.
The point is that voting no on this bill was the politically safe thing to do and Lentol went the other way. Not only that, but he added his name as a cosponsor of the bill. That was a signal to other Assemblymembers that they could follow their consciences too. That’s leadership, the value of seniority, and the value of a legislator whose judgement everyone trusts. Look at any legislature and you will find that junior members look to the veterans in the chamber for cues on tough issues. As the then-Chair of the powerful Codes Committee and one of the senior-most members in the Assembly, Lentol had a lot of skin in the game and a lot to lose. But he reasoned that there’s no point to having clout in the chamber if you don’t use it. He knew which way he wanted to vote regardless of the consequences.
Of course, this is not to say that Lentol singlehandedly passed marriage equality in New York State. Assemblymember O’Donnell sponsored the bill and worked tirelessly to get it passed. And before him there was Assemblymember Deborah Glick who fought for gay rights ever since her arrival in the Assembly in 1991. Credit also Governor Andrew Cuomo who made it his mission to pass the Marriage Equality Act in his first legislative session as governor. We will never know if Cuomo championed this issue because he truly believed in marriage equality or if he simply wanted the credit for it. In the end it doesn’t matter because the result is the same. Give me a competent pragmatist over an incompetent ideologue any day.
While we’re at it, let’s also give credit to then-Senate Majority Leader, Republican Dean Skelos for agreeing to let the bill come to the floor of the Senate for a vote and let the chips fall where they may. We’ll never know what was said behind closed doors or how Cuomo and Skelos negotiated that vote, but this was an impressive display of bipartisanship over a controversial bill in a time when bipartisanship was becoming a dinosaur. And by now that dinosaur is so old it’s petroleum.
But Cuomo needed to convince four Republican Senators to buck their party and vote for the Marriage Equality Act, and those would be the legislators truly sticking their heads on the chopping block. And he found them. Republican Senators Jim Alesi and Roy McDonald broke ranks with their party around the same time that the Assembly passed the bill in mid-June, and Mark Grisanti and Steve Saland put the bill over the top on the crucial last day of the 2011 legislative session. Out of those four, McDonald and Saland lost re-election bids in 2012 and Grisanti in 2014. All of their challengers cited the vote on the Marriage Equality Act as a major campaign issue. Alesi voluntarily retired after 2012. Think what you want about Republicans in general, and I certainly have on a myriad of issues over the years, but these men stuck their necks out to do the right thing, and they got the chop for their troubles.
And what of Lentol? Believe it or not, there were electoral consequences for him as well. Chickens come home to roost, and revenge is a dish best served cold. Although overlooked to this point, one of the contributing factors in Lentol’s 2020 primary loss was weaker than expected turnout from the Hasidic community. That community certainly showed up for him, but the numbers were not as strong as expected and not enough to save him. It is clear that some of the more conservative members of that community held Lentol to task for his support of the Marriage Equality Act, bills on transgender rights and a handful of other issues that made him too liberal for their tastes. To send a message, they stayed home and were stunned when he lost. As my high school English teacher used to say, passivity is fatal.
At this point it is all history. Political careers come and go. Today’s progressive will eventually be called out by someone younger for being too conservative. But legislative votes matter. They make a difference in people’s lives. Evaluating and choosing elected officials based on their ideology or demographic characteristics is not as important as choosing them based on their character. When these men had their chance to do the right thing or take the easy way out, they chose the high road and damned the torpedoes. As we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of marriage equality in New York State, let’s also take a moment to tip our hats to the political leadership of these few legislators who carried the ball the final few yards into the endzone.
Eric Radezky holds a Ph.D. in political science from Rutgers University and resides in Greenpoint.
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