Same-sex marriage advocates had hoped for a decisive vote in the New Jersey Senate yesterday. Instead it began to appear more and more likely that the effort to legalize gay marriage will not win approval before this legislative session expires.
Advocates are still maneuvering, but two Senate Democrats who oppose the measure said yesterday that the proposal was almost sure to fall short of the votes needed to clear the upper chamber - and that there did not appear to be much chance of anyone changing his or her mind.
Emotions have heated up on the issue, with hundreds of calls pouring in to lawmakers' offices and at least three senators facing protests this week outside their homes or while attending personal events. Two protests were in favor of the legislation and, according to those targeted, were led by people bearing Garden State Equality signs, though the group's executive director had sent an e-mail advising against such tactics.
Another protest was led by people who oppose same-sex marriage and were trying to convince a supporter of the measure to change his vote.
Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer), who opposes the legislation, said it was as many as eight votes short in the Senate with about a month to go before the session ends and Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie, a same-sex marriage opponent, takes office.
"I can't see how you change that many opinions over this short period of time," Turner said on a day that was supposed to include a crucial Senate vote on allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed.
The vote was called off late Wednesday as it became clear that the measure would not win passage yesterday.
"I don't believe there's going to be the votes in the Senate for it" this session, added Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex), another opponent.
Democrats control both houses of the Legislature, but Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex), said it "seems obvious" that the same-sex marriage supporters who called off the expected debate did not have the 21 votes needed to move the measure through the Senate. He was unsure if it would be possible to clear that hurdle.
Supporters hope to build momentum in the Assembly, but there was no indication yesterday that the lower house would take up the issue. The uncertain prospects in the Senate, and the public signal of weakness sent by the stalled vote, have only created more doubt.
"I can't guarantee that if [the Assembly passes] it that it will pass in my house at this point in time, so it's a whole new ballgame," Codey said.
Privately, some Democratic lawmakers, including supporters, have said that the bill is dead.
Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden) has the authority to post the measure for an Assembly vote, but he has not committed to doing so and did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
He has said he wants to discuss the measure with his caucus, but lawmakers appear wary to take on the controversial issue only to see it fall short in the end.
Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a sponsor of the bill, continued to express hope.
"If it were a moral issue I think we would be in good shape, but there are politics being played out here as well," Lesniak said. "I'm hoping that the morality of ending discrimination against loving gay couples trumps the politics of it."
The issue has become a focal point for state politics in the waning days of the Corzine administration and for the same-sex marriage movement, which has absorbed recent defeats in Maine and New York. Gov. Corzine has said he would sign the bill, but Christie, who takes office Jan. 19, has said he would veto a similar measure if it were reintroduced.
Dozens of Garden State Equality volunteers lined the Statehouse hallways yesterday, hoping to win over the last votes they need, while only a handful of social conservatives made the trip once the vote was canceled.
The fight has taken on a heated tone. Turner said same-sex advocates protested outside her home Tuesday night, making her at least the second lawmaker who faced demonstrations that night by people bearing Garden State Equality signs and buttons.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R., Union), said protesters knocked on his neighbors' doors and were outside a school Tuesday night where his daughter, a fifth grader, had a recital.
He declined to comment on the protest other than to say that it happened.
Turner, however, said she was more defiant after the demonstration, which she said lasted until after 10 p.m.
"I didn't mind about myself, but I felt badly for my neighbors," she said. "When people try to force me, I don't take well to threats and intimidation."
A third senator, Mercer County Republican Bill Baroni, faced a protest outside a birthday party Tuesday from a small group of people who oppose same-sex marriage.
He had voted in favor of the bill in a committee Monday. Baroni said the protesters had every right to state their opinions.
He received a much different reception yesterday from Garden State Equality volunteers. A group showed its appreciation in the Statehouse by singing "Happy Birthday" to Baroni, who was turning 38.
Garden State Equality chairman Steven Goldstein said he did not authorize the protests. Thousands of people have his group's pins and there are 55,000 members, he said. He posted an apology to Kean online, and in a phone interview called the protests "unacceptable" and "sickening."
"It's wrong. We didn't coordinate it," Goldstein said in the interview.
He said he had urged students to call off their protest outside a lawmaker's home, and provided a copy of an e-mail, dated at 7:30 p.m., showing his concern.
"I speak for the organization here as its leader. It is an invasion of privacy and tactically inadvisable," the e-mail reads. "It would not win her over. Just the opposite."
The note was addressed to the "TCNJ list," indicating the College of New Jersey, which is based in Turner's district and near her home. Turner was not mentioned by name.
One student who protested outside Turner's home, Sarah Walsh, a College of New Jersey sophomore, said she learned of the event through a Facebook message and received signs and candles from Garden State Equality volunteers outside the senator's home. Walsh said the group mostly sang while supporters honked their horns as they drove past.
Despite the legislative muddle, Corzine said he believed New Jersey "will get to a positive conclusion of equal protection under the law."