Two days before the New Jersey Senate was scheduled to consider a bill to allow same-sex marriage, some area legislators were reticent yesterday to reveal how they would vote.
Dana Redd (D., Camden), who will resign her Senate seat next month to become mayor of Camden, has decided but isn't telling, she said at a Camden City Council meeting last night.
James Beach (D., Camden) hadn't made up his mind, an aide said. And Stephen Sweeney and Fred Madden (both D., Gloucester) did not respond to repeated calls seeking their positions on the issue.
The bill, known officially as the Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act, squeaked through the Judiciary Committee in a 7-6 vote Monday after nine hours of testimony and debate. The Senate will consider it tomorrow.
"It's an uphill fight, but there is a chance for victory," said sponsor Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen).
Philip Haines (R., Burlington) will oppose the measure, an aide said Friday. Diane Allen (R., Burlington) had hoped to vote, but her battle with cancer has left her too weak to travel to Trenton, a member of her staff said yesterday.
A number of senators around the state have said they are still weighing the issue, though political analysts doubt many truly are undecided.
"When you have a lot of 'not sures,' it really means they may have some idea of how they feel about [the bill] personally, but there needs to be a political calculation of what the vote means," said Ingrid Reed, director of the New Jersey Project at the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.
"Legislators are facing pressure from a lot of different sources and a lot of different people," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "It's understandable if one would not tell anyone what their decision is until they're ready to give a speech on the floor."
Those who have a strong personal view or a clear message from their constituency will speak out, Dworkin said. Others "don't want the fight to happen."
Advocates see the current legislative session, which ends Jan. 19, as their last opportunity for at least four years to get a law passed in New Jersey. Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie has vowed to veto a same-sex marriage measure if it is reintroduced during his tenure.
Nationally, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire have approved gay marriage. The New York Senate rejected a same-sex marriage proposal last week, and Maine voters last month overturned a law to allow such marriages.
In the New Jersey Senate, which has 23 Democrats and 17 Republicans, the bill needs 21 votes to pass. The Assembly has referred its version to its judiciary committee, where no action has been taken.
Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen), who opposes the bill, said he had heard that as of last week, nine Democrats intended to vote against the measure.
Jason Butkowski, spokesman for the Senate majority, said the vote was "a matter of conscience" that would not necessarily follow party lines. In the Senate Judiciary Committee, two Democrats voted against the bill and Republican Bill Baroni of Mercer County supported it.
Tomorrow's vote is "too close to call," said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, which has formed a coalition with the National Organization for Marriage and the New Jersey Catholic Conference, among other groups, to oppose the bill.
New Jersey politicians cannot ignore serious opposition from the Catholic Church, Reed said. Political leaders may decide behind closed doors how senators should vote to benefit party members' reelection chances, she said.
Members of the public who oppose the bill were outnumbered 2-1 on Monday in Trenton amid a sea of supporters wearing dark blue "Equality the American Dream" T-shirts, Deo said. He expects the same turnout tomorrow, he said.
Weinberg said she thought recent support from prominent civil rights leaders such as the NAACP's Julian Bond, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), and former U.S. Attorney Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, who faced down Alabama's segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace in 1963, helped create momentum for the measure on Monday.
In response to the judiciary committee's vote, Gov. Corzine said, "I am confident that through this process, the marriage-equality issue will be recognized for what it truly is: a civil rights issue that must be approved to assure that every citizen is treated equally under the law."
Weinberg, who was Corzine's running mate in November, said some opponents of the bill may be reassured by Baroni's amendment clarifying that religious organizations would not be forced to sanction or participate in a marriage with which they disagreed.
No matter what the outcome, tomorrow's vote on the proposal will have national implications, Dworkin said.
"Each side will take what it can from victory or defeat and mobilize based on it," he said. "It just pushes everyone to the next battleground."