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Push for gay marriage in N.Y. shifts to suburbs

Younger backers overwhelming those opposing

By Michael Gormley
Associated Press / April 24, 2011

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ALBANY, N.Y. — Lady Gaga on stage on Long Island, actors Kevin Bacon, Julianne Moore, and Kyra Sedgwick on video, and Governor Andrew Cuomo in Albany are headliners in New York’s push to legalize gay marriage, a fight that may already be won because of shifting voter sentiment and a concerted, disciplined campaign.

New Yorkers opposed to gay marriage are being swamped by younger people who support it, while polls seem to show that a new tactic by advocates is working in the suburbs and upstate, the more conservative region where the issue will be won or lost.

Five states — New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa, and Massachusetts — and the District of Columbia have approved gay marriage laws. New York has always been a goal of advocates because of its size, high profile, and unparalleled media presence.

“A win in New York will provide significant momentum for the movement nationally and, quite frankly, internationally,’’ said Brian Ellner of the Human Rights Campaign, working for same-sex marriage. “New York is very significant.’’

The organized effort under Cuomo is a turnaround from the surprising 2009 defeat in the state Senate that fell eight votes short of passage in the 62-seat chamber after strong approval in the Assembly. Back then, advocacy groups operated more independently, sometimes alienating as many lawmakers and their constituents as they won over.

But those votes were just a prologue to today, said Bruce Gyory, a political science professor at the University at Albany who analyzes voter trends.

Despite failing in 2009, the debate demonstrated some of the Legislature’s greatest displays of eloquence — personal stories of sons and daughters denied the joys and rights of marriage — and did what is rare in Albany: It changed votes.

“In my view, that wasn’t an isolated phenomenon,’’ Gyory said. “That debate has been replicated hundreds and thousands of times over the Internet, e-mails, and kaffeeklatches and over glasses of wine in New York’s suburbs.’’ Those conversations have changed public opinion, he said.

Advocates for gay marriage learned the power of personal persuasion over in-your-face parades long ago. Fred and Heidi Perkins held a letter-writing open house at their Plainview home in Nassau County, a key area for the issue and where their gay son wants to be married. They said 70 neighbors showed up.

“My son getting married isn’t really affecting anyone else’s marriage,’’ said Heidi Perkins, 50, a market researcher. “It’s sad.’’

“We want to dance at our son’s wedding,’’ said Iris Blumenthal, 68, of Syosset, Nassau County, and another longtime advocate. “I would love if these senators were in my shoes. What if their child came out as gay and said they wanted to get married?’’ A year ago, Gyory’s analysis showed support for gay marriage was rising 1 percent to 2 percent a year nationally as opposition declined by the same amount. But, he said, national polls now show support climbing at 2 percent to 4 percent a year, led by coastal states including New York.

Even white Catholics — another major element of New York’s suburban and upstate vote — reported rising acceptance in Pew and Gallup polls.

In New York, the Siena College poll this month found a new high for support — 58 percent. The poll showed reliable voters 55 and older were divided on the issue, not opposed, and that the influential independent vote favored same-sex marriage.

On April 14, a Quinnipiac University poll found opposition continued to fall toward 30 percent.

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