In February of this year, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora testified in support of New Jersey’s marriage equality bill, and passionately against the idea of conducting a referendum instead. He noted our nation’s proud history of “safeguarding against popular will over the rights of minorities,” and pointing to the acrimony, name-calling and divisive tone that permeated Trenton that week in the debate over the issue, Gusciora put it to his colleagues this way:
“imagine what will happen during a ballot question of this type. There will be more divisiveness in this state, more acrimony, and it will be a race to see who could shout the loudest.”
This month, Gusciora switched gears, and is now championing Gov. Christie’s marriage referendum proposal. Others have joined him. The sole reason anyone seems to be able to point to for reconsidering is the outcomes on ballot questions around the country in November. But, those outcomes are neither instructive nor predictive of what would happen in NJ in 2013. More importantly, unless the opposition to a referendum back in February was nothing more than a bunch of excuses for fear of losing, none of the real reasons for opposing a referendum in NJ has actually changed.
For me (and thankfully, for the Democratic leadership in the Senate and Assembly), it’s still a non-starter.
A marriage referendum should only ever happen as a last resort – as it was in Maine, which had previously voted in a referendum against it – or because there’s no choice – as in Maryland and Washington, where their laws required it. We are not yet in last-resort territory in NJ. We have a realistic override opportunity – not a likely one (I’m not trying to fool myself or others), but at least as plausible a path to override as NY had to passage. We also have a winning state court case headed to trial, which in all likelihood will still be necessary even after the SCOTUS rules this summer.
Moreover, and significantly to those emboldened by the November outcomes, all three of those states, and Minnesota, were voting in a Presidential year with marriage-equality-endorsing Obama cruising at the top of the ticket. That is not what we are facing here next year. 2013 in NJ, with an enormously popular Republican governor opposing marriage equality as he seeks reelection, is perhaps the very worst year that marriage could appear on the ballot here.
I hope we never have to endure the pain of a referendum in New Jersey. The stories from other states of divided neighborhoods, business boycotts, hatred, threats, and even violence that these referenda bring with them are nothing we should ever choose to inflict on ourselves. Win or lose, they leave a lasting trail of regret and animosity among neighbors that can be extremely difficult if not impossible to erase.
But, if we do ever find ourselves with no other choices, and a referendum as our last resort, there is still room for strategic thinking about it, including waiting for a favorable electoral posture. I’m absolutely not advocating for a 2016 referendum – yet. That’s really really long to wait, and there are multiple options for achieving marriage equality here in New Jersey before then. But, at least that might make strategic sense if all other options fail.
By contrast, I believe talk of a referendum in 2013 is both unwise strategically and specifically harmful to the override efforts happening now by giving cover to Republican moderates, and weakening the message. All of a sudden, we’ve gone from a narrative of “referendum is offensive, unfair and insensitive to minority rights” to “there’s a difference of opinion among LGBT leaders and progressive-minded folks referendum.” Moderate Republicans who are movable leaners on the issue are being handed a ready excuse not to do the right thing.
l generally agree with the notion that multiple people working multiple tracks toward a common goal is a good thing. Except, of course, when it isn’t.