A Tale of Two Gay Marriage Bills

Last week, state legislatures in New Jersey and Maryland both passed measures to legalize gay marriage. In Maryland, Governor Martin O'Malley pushed hard for the measure and was largely credited with its success. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie killed the effort with a stroke of his veto pen. Democrat O'Malley and Republican Christie are both seen as future leaders of their respective parties—which means depending on political winds, gay marriage can either be a feather in their cap or a millstone around their neck.

O'Malley had political winds with him as he embarked on the effort to make Maryland the eighth state to recognize same sex marriages. (Actually, when he started pushing this year, Maryland would've been the seventh—Washington state since passed a similar measure.) O'Malley was a vocal proponent, mentioning the effort in his state of the state address and meeting with lawmakers to push them over the line. It was in some sense a political risk—gay marriage failed last year in the House of Delegates.

The Baltimore Sun, which has a nice recap how the measure passed, illustrated just how tense things were:

But Friday, the national spotlight was focused on Maryland's 141-member House, where O'Malley aides said they were not sure they had the votes until the final count was read aloud. For nearly a year, a tight group of supporters had fanned out to talk with any and every delegate they thought they could move.

"It was a grind until the end," said Joseph Bryce, O'Malley's top legislative aide, who in July was tasked with pulling the votes together. In the final weeks, he had said they were within "striking distance," but they went into the day of the vote with no margin for error. 

Without O'Malley's efforts, it's hard to see how the measure would have passed. While it will likely go to a state referendum in the fall, the legislative victory is no small milestone. The governor's name has come up as a potential candidate in 2016, and should he choose to run, his efforts around gay rights will likely help him gain support.

If O'Malley won a tough vote, Christie was in a losing position before things even got underway. The New Jersey governor likely has national ambitions, and right now, Republicans are largely opposed to gay marriage. However, Christie's ambitions aren't for "right now." He's been a firm no when it comes to running for president, and he's likely eyeing job opportunities a few years down the road. The trouble is, every year, gay marriage is getting popular.

The Pew Research Center's polls over the last two decades show the trend clearly. In the most recent poll, from October 2011, the center showed Americans split almost evenly, with 46 percent of the country supporting gay marriage while 45 percent did not. Among just about every group, support for gay marriage is going up. The center attributes much of the shift to generational change; as those born after 1965 are significantly more positive on the measures. As Pew recently reported:

Just two years earlier, in 2009, a clear majority (54 percent) opposed gay marriage while just 37 percent favored it. In 1996, when Pew Research first asked about letting gay couples marry legally, almost two-thirds of the public (65 percent) opposed the idea, and just 27 percent favored it.

There continue to be substantial generational, partisan, and racial differences over gay marriage. Since the 1990s, however, support has increased across most demographic and political groups.

For Christie's sake, however, the most relevant shift is that of the Republican party. While a vast majority of GOPers still oppose the measure, every year gay marriage gains support. For younger Republicans, this appears to be much less of an issue. 

Christie ultimately tried to appeal to direct governance. He vetoed the measure, pushing instead for a statewide referendum. That hardly skirted the issue; Christie can't escape that he killed a gay marriage bill after it passed through the legislature. In defending the referendum support, Christie compared the measure to the African American struggle for civil rights. "The fact of the matter is, I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South," he said. He was roundly criticized and later apologized.

However, Christie might have thought a bit longer about his own comparison. In many ways, the fight for gay rights is not unlike some of the civil rights efforts half a century ago—people looking for equal recognition under the law. Christie opted to go with what's popular today in his party rather than looking towards the future. He could have looked at some history books and anti-civil rights activists to see how that turns out. They'd likely tell him it's no fun being on the losing side of history.

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