Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Valesky on Marriage Equality

Over two decades ago, I did some volunteer work for a non-profit organization in Syracuse, New York. One of the executives at that organization was a young man named Dave Valesky. I remember his genuine appreciation toward me and other volunteers for putting in time to help there. His attitude toward his volunteers made working there fun and rewarding.

After I moved to New Jersey, I was pleased to learn that in 2004, Valesky was elected to the New York State Senate to represent the people of Central New York as a Democrat.

I was even more pleased to read this Catholic senator from a conservative district has been a supporter of marriage equality, leading to full marriage rights in the Empire State.

So even though the parameters of the marriage equality battle may be different in New Jersey, I reached out to Valesky to learn about his decision to vote for equality and how it might help the upcoming debate here. He was gracious enough to spend some time with me on a telephone interview.

Valesky was not always a supporter of marriage equality. He told me that at one time, he felt that civil unions would grant equal rights to same-sex couples. But prior to the 2009 vote, he took it upon himself to do some research – what he called an “educational process” – to learn more about the issue. Through this effort, he came to the conclusion that civil unions were “separate and unequal” in terms of the benefits that accrue to people who receive state marriage licenses.

But the key factor in Valesky’s decision to vote for marriage equality, both in the failed attempt in 2009 and the success in 2011, was separation of church and state. He said that his Catholic sacrament of marriage is totally different than the piece of paper he received from the State of New York. He spoke about this on the Senate floor, and with the help of four Republicans, marriage equality passed in the Republican-controlled Senate. (The New York Senate consists of 32 Republicans and 30 Democrats, four of whom caucus separately from their party as an independent group. Valesky is one of the four.)

I asked Valesky about the impact of his 2009 vote in his 2010 re-election bid. He told me that it was not a significant issue.

Of course, the situation here in New Jersey is different. Valesky told me that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership on this issue was a significant factor in its success. Here, Governor Christie has already stated that his personal opposition to same-sex marriage will trump the equal rights issue. As long as our governor harbors national political ambition, groups like Garden State Equality will have an uphill battle in ensuring equal rights for all New Jerseyans.

While we can count on the progressive Democrats to do the right thing, the key to passing marriage equality will be convincing conservative Democrats, similar to Valesky, that civil and religious marriages are two separate issues. Senate President Sweeney has already said that he regrets abstaining on the vote that was taken last year. But we need to convince other Democrats like Fred Madden and John Girgenti to do the right thing.

Factual arguments and introspection, such as Valesky’s, are necessary. New York’s vote is a shot in the arm to the equality movement here. Contributions to Garden State Equality are essential to help get the message out. And we should show appreciation to those politicians who vote their conscience to promote rights for all.

Valesky is up for re-election next year. His campaign web site is here

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