TRENTON, N.J. — A 15-year-old being raised by gay parents tearfully asked a legislative panel to allow her fathers to marry so she'd feel like less like an outcast, while Democrats worked behind the scenes Thursday to secure the votes to pass the same-sex marriage bill making its way through the Legislature.
Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. The Republican governor, who opposes gay marriage, wants voters to decide the issue instead. Democrats who control the Legislature argue that gay marriage is a civil right and should not be subject to popular vote. Senate President Steve Sweeney on Thursday said a referendum won't happen.
Christie talked up his proposal for a November ballot question during a town hall-style event on politically friendly home turf in the Morris County town of Denville Thursday morning, promising that GOP lawmakers would support it.
"We're making it really easy for (gay marriage advocates in the Legislature). This is the bargain of their lives," Christie said. "How much more magnanimous can I be? What more do you want? Me to campaign for it?"
Scores of same-sex marriage proponents were campaigning for their side at the Statehouse, while detractors maintained that the traditional definition of marriage should remain unchanged. New Jersey offers civil unions to gay couples, a legal status designed to provide the benefits of marriage without the title. Many say the law is flawed.
Madison Galluccio, the 15-year-old daughter of Michael and Jon Galluccio of North Haledon, said it is difficult for her to explain what a civil union is to friends.
"It's very hard that I can't tell my friends, 'I have gay dads and they are married just like your parents,'" she told the panel. "You don't give me the right to say that. I do have to say New Jersey has made me feel discriminated, like I'm some sort of outcast. But, guess what, New Jersey, I'm no outcast. ... I'm part of the Galluccio family, and my parents will be married."
The bill cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee in a 5-2 party-line vote after a day-long hearing. Its prospects before the full Assembly were less certain, however.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver told The Associated Press she would poll the 48 Democrats in her caucus for the first time Monday to find out whether she would have 41 votes — the minimum number needed to pass the bill. She summoned her members for a private meeting specifically to discuss the gay marriage bill; it's unusual for a caucus to meet over a single issue, an indication that proponents still need to twist some arms, or the bill would fail.
"I think we're right there. Most legislation, you work right up to the caucus before the vote. They're well into the 30s, the high 30s, a solid yes. We're working on the undecided," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Trenton, one of two openly gay assemblymen and a sponsor of the legislation.
Christie referred to Gusciora as "numb nuts" after the lawmaker this week compared the governor to Southern segregationists. The exchanges came after Christie — while making the case for a gay marriage ballot question — claimed civil rights activists would have been happier to have the matter settled by popular vote rather than dying in the streets of the South in the 1950s and '60s. He later clarified the remark by saying he understood minorities would not have won equal rights by referendum, but not before Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and hero of the civil rights movement, visited Trenton to chastise Christie.
Six states and Washington, D.C. allow gay marriage. On Wednesday, the Washington state Senate passed a same-sex marriage bill that is expected to win House approval and be signed into law, though opponents have promised to challenge it at the ballot with a referendum.
Thirty states have approved constitutional amendments aimed at banning gay marriage, all but one specifically defining marriage as a union between man and woman.
In New Jersey, a gay-marriage measure failed in the Senate two years ago as lame-duck Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine waited to sign it. Sweeney, the Legislature's most powerful Democrat, didn't vote in 2009, but has had a change of heart and is now sponsoring the bill. He says he has the 21 votes need for the Senate to pass the bill; the vote is set for Feb. 13.
It would be far more difficult for proponents to wrangle the 27 Senate votes and 54 Assembly votes needed to override a Christie veto. It wouldn't happen in either house without some GOP support.
New Jersey's highest court stopped short of allowing same-sex nuptials in 2006 and instead created civil unions. The state's own review commission found problems with the law, however, and many same-sex couples have backed that up with testimony.
"Separate but equal is not equal," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Sayreville, a gay marriage proponent. He reminded the judiciary committee of "heartbreaking stories" from gay couples who could not sign off on medical care for comatose partners, receive health benefits under a partner's insurance and who are forced to explain their sexuality on employment forms and in job interviews because the term 'civil union' isn't widely known or understood.
Associated Press writer Beth DeFalco contributed reporting from Denville.