New Jersey Democrats stepped up their push to legalize gay marriage Tuesday, urging Gov. Chris Christie to allow GOP legislators to vote for the bill.
Democratic leaders held a news conference in Westfield _ a town represented by the Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the chamber's GOP leader _ with Liz Flanagan and Nancy Wilkinson, a lesbian couple in a civil union who have been together 30 years.
The Democrats invited Kean to visit the couple privately, presumably to help convince him to vote to override the governor's gay marriage veto. Earlier in the day, Senate President Stephen Sweeney told radio station New Jersey 101.5 that Christie "without question'' is exerting his will over fellow Republicans in the gay marriage vote.
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In a statement released by the Senate Republican Office, Kean asked Sweeney to skip the lecture.
"Legislators should vote their conscience on every issue,'' he said.
But Sweeney insisted later that Republicans have been given marching orders on the bill. Asked how he knew, Sweeney said, "they told us.''
Christie recently called the suggestion that he controlled the vote "insulting.''
Christie supports civil unions, which gives gay couples benefits of marriage but not the title. Several Democrats on Tuesday called the state law unconstitutional now that the U.S. Supreme Court has granted federal benefits to married gay couples.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg urged Christie to honor a tradition in the Legislature of not adopting a party position on matters of conscience. Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor, hit a more personal note, saying her gay daughter shouldn't have to go to another state to be married.
Gay rights activists are pursuing parallel tracks of legislation and the courts to win the right for same-sex couples to marry here. New Jersey and Pennsylvania are the only northeast states where gay marriage remains illegal.
Republicans on Tuesday blasted Sweeney for abstaining from voting on gay marriage in 2009 and failing to gain support from two of the 24 Senate Democrats.
"This is a guy who believed so deeply in same-sex marriage that he abstained on the vote in the fall of 2009 when they had a governor who was willing to sign the bill,'' said Christie, who was asked about Sweeney's stance following a road construction groundbreaking in Seaside Park.
Sweeney has said not voting on the bill was the biggest mistake of his legislative career. He has since become an ardent supporter, and said Tuesday that everyone has the right to marry whomever they love.
Christie supports putting same-sex marriage to voters _ though he said he would vote against it. But Sweeney and others insist that a civil right does not belong on the ballot _ even in a state where a majority of voters say they support it.
The governor vetoed a gay marriage bill last year. So far, no override vote has been scheduled.
Sweeney said Tuesday he would schedule it when the activists signal him to go ahead. Troy Stevenson of Garden State Equality, the state's largest gay rights organization, said it won't happen until the voted needed to override are secured.
It would take 27 affirmative votes in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly for the override to succeed. That means 3 Republicans in the Senate and 6 in the Assembly would have to vote in favor along with every Democrat. Several Democrats did not vote for the bill last year.