But one calamity darkened the mood of nostalgia and self-congratulation: the passage last summer of a law legalizing same-sex marriage. For many New Yorkers, the June 24 marriage vote was a rare moment of goosebump drama from a capital better known for tedious dysfunction. For the Conservatives, and in particular for Mike Long, the ex-marine who has been the party’s chairman for nearly half of its history, the vote was a triple humiliation.
It was, first, a defining triumph for the state’s ambitious new Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Second, it was an abandonment by Republican leaders, who had invoked party discipline to kill similar legislation in 2009. This time the Republican leaders publicly opposed gay marriage, but knowing that both public opinion and lobbying muscle were coalescing on the other side, they freed their members to vote as they wished. And that led to what was, for Mike Long, an unforgivable betrayal. All four of the Republican senators who voted for the bill and provided the necessary margin for it to pass had been elected with the Conservative endorsement, a prize for which opposition to gay marriage was an essential litmus test. Two of those wayward senators would not have won their seats without the Conservative boost.
Try as they might to explain away the defections — perhaps it was the lure of money from gay hedge-fund billionaires, or some devilish deal with Cuomo — the Conservatives feared that this defeat, if not punished, could mean an ominous loss of influence.
The four Republican apostates now had targets on their backs.
It is difficult to construct an argument against marriage rights for gay people that doesn’t sound like an argument against gay people. Mike Long and his fellow partisans, like many conservatives nationwide, build their case on what they call “the defense of traditional marriage.” No society in history, they told me repeatedly, has extended marriage rights to homosexuals, and so we shouldn’t risk the unraveling of civilization by starting now. (Apparently they don’t count the 10 countries, from Canada to South Africa, where gays may legally marry and civilization endures.) I’ve had a few conversations with Long, trying to understand what harm they think they are defending marriage from. In one conversation I recounted my own classic wedding at the Holy Name of Jesus church, and wondered how somebody else’s less conventional marriage could diminish the joy of it.
“Well, I don’t think it hurts anybody,” Long replied, “but I think a society has to have certain standards, and since the beginning of time, marriage has been between a man and a woman.” Marriage, he elaborated, is about children. “You’re not going to procreate children with same-sex couples.”
I told him that would be news to my daughters’ school classmates, the ones with two moms or two dads. And by the way, we don’t prohibit elderly, infertile or just plain procreation-averse couples from marrying.
“I know plenty of gay couples, O.K.?” he snapped back. “Some of them, if not all of them, are very good people, O.K.? I just don’t believe that society needs to change what the definition of marriage is to accommodate their lifestyle. That’s all. You know, that may be old-school. But I think Western civilization has done pretty good old-school.”
The quartet of dissident Republicans are themselves fairly old-school, at least when it comes to the rest of their conservative credentials. They come not from liberal Manhattan or the upscale suburbs of Westchester County. They are upstate guys, from struggling former mill towns and diminished Rust Belt cities. So while the senators’ political calculus differs from district to district, their experiences give us a glimpse into how this issue is likely to play out in “real America,” as conservatives are fond of calling it, and not just in the coastal metropolises. Which is why the fates of these four are being watched intently by national lobbies and wavering politicians across the country.
Bill Keller is a former executive editor of The Times. He writes a column for the Op-Ed page.
EDITOR: Greg Veis