Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
New Jersey has been a strange state in the gay marriage debate. The state allows same-sex civil unions, but not marriage. Governor Jon Corzine and legislative leaders support gay marriage. However, so far they haven't supported it quite enough to actually call for a vote in the legislature on the subject.
Increasingly, it appears that's going to change, but not until after the November elections. From the Associated Press:
A bill that would allow gay marriage is expected to be debated in Trenton during the lame-duck period between the Nov. 3 election and start of a new legislative session in January.
In the fall, there probably will be television and radio ads on the issue. But for now, the focus is mostly on the faithful speaking to their representatives in Trenton.
What appears to be going on (though it's hard to know from the outside) is that New Jersey lawmakers have delayed the vote to the time they think will be most politically convenient. Gay marriage is controversial, so New Jersey Democrats want to vote on it in the lame duck session directly after the election. The reasoning seems to be that if the vote is taken 23 months before the next legislative elections, it won't come with electoral consequences.
Maybe, but I think this strategy is a bit too cute.
For one thing, delaying the vote makes it a bigger issue in some sense. I suspect that just about every legislative candidate in New Jersey will be asked about the topic this fall, since everyone knows a vote is coming up. If New Jersey legislators had voted on the subject months ago, it might be a settled issue.
What's more, delaying the vote gives wavering lawmakers more time to get cold feet. In November, voters in Maine will be deciding whether to reject a gay marriage law, while voters in Washington may decide whether to reject a civil unions law. If those votes go in favor of social conservative (a big "if"), gay marriage may face a tougher road in New Jersey
Even if New Jersey lawmakers don't pay a lot of attention to the voters of Maine and Washington, they may pay attention to the voters of New Jersey. If Corzine has been defeated, as seems likely (although somewhat less likely that it was a couple of weeks ago), and if Republicans make gains in the legislature, it will be rather awkward to pass a gay marriage bill. I'm not sure the public will look kindly on a lame duck governor using a lame duck session to resolve one of the most controversial topics in American politics.
The strange thing to me is that New Jersey Democrats think this sort of strategizing is necessary in the first place. At least some polling indicates that public opinion is in favor of gay marriage in New Jersey. But if New Jersey Democrats have a winning issue, they certainly aren't acting like it.
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