In July, a bill designed to protect same-sex marriages passed the US House of Representatives with bipartisan support. Forty-seven Republicans joined House Democrats in passing the Respect for Marriage Act. Shortly thereafter, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that he was working to drum up sufficient Republican support in the Senate to pass the bill.

Following weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Schumer announced in mid-September that the vote would be delayed until after the midterm elections.

To make sense of what is happening with marriage equality, we put together a two-part podcast series, featuring conversations with policymakers, experts, and advocates.

In part one of this series, Rockefeller Institute Fellow Heather Trela, Senior Policy Analyst Leigh Wedenoja, and Pride Center of the Capital Region Executive Director Nate Gray answer questions like: If the US Supreme Court ruled in 2015 to legalize marriage equality nationwide, why is there now a renewed push for legislating this issue? What is the legislative and judicial history of marriage equality and how does that inform the provisions in the Respect for Marriage Act? And how is the recent uncertainty surrounding marriage equality affecting members of the LGBTQ+ community?

In part two, we draw some political parallels to the current moment with a look back at the push for marriage equality in New York in 2011. To understand the political calculations and consequences of a Republican “yes” vote on this issue, Rockefeller Institute President Bob Megna talks with Senator Steve Saland, one of four Republican senators who crossed the aisle to say “aye” to the Marriage Equality Act.


Robert Megna, president, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Steve Saland, former New York State Senator

Listen to Part I

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.

    Alexander Morse 00:04

    Welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. This is part two of our look at marriage equality in the United States. In our first episode, we spoke with Rockefeller Institute fellow Heather Trela and Nate Gray, Executive Director of the Pride Center of the Capital Region, about the Respect for Marriage Act making its way through Congress. What prompted the legislation? What is the legislative and judicial history of marriage equality? And how is the recent uncertainty surrounding marriage equality affecting members of the LGBTQ+ community? For this episode will explore some of the political factors at play in achieving bipartisan support for marriage equality. 11 years ago, in New York State marriage equality was a highly contentious issue, while the Democrat controlled assembly and Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo were in support of the Marriage Equality Act. The bills fate in the Republican led Senate was uncertain. Ultimately, four Republicans crossed the aisle to vote in support of the bill, and New York became the sixth state to legalize same sex marriage. It was the first state to do so with a Republican controlled chamber. We invited one of those four Republicans, former state senator Stephen Saland, to discuss the legislative negotiations of the marriage equality bill, the advocacy pressures leading up to the vote and the resulting political consequences. That conversation with guest host and Rockefeller Institute President Bob Megna coming up next.

    Robert Megna 01:53

    Good morning, welcome to this Rockefeller podcast, I would like to welcome today a former state senator Steve Solange to join us in a conversation and current throughway board member of which I get a chance to work with him. So, I’ve gotten a chance to know the Senator and I want to thank him for agreeing to be with us today and have a conversation.

    Stephen Saland 02:24

    Thank you, Bob. It’s my pleasure. It’s been a long time since anybody cared to hear me.

    Robert Megna 02:31

    I think we’re going to find that a lot of people care about it. Can you maybe, given that can you talk a little about your career and and how it unfolded and how you ended up in the state senate?

    Stephen Saland 02:46

    Believe it or not serving in the legislature. I couldn’t define which legislature, but public office was something I wanted to do since childhood. I guess it was probably because I was a voracious history reader and all of those childhood novels, the subject always hero always did, well always did right by the country. And they said, Gee, that’s great. I’d like that. So, I gave it a whirl. I started in local government back in the early 1970s. ran for the state assembly in 1980. was successful, served there for about 10 years, live in the Hudson Valley in Poughkeepsie, of the dip practically all my life, although I now live in Rhinebeck, still Dutchess County, in 1990. I ran for the state senate was successful when things are done through 2012 combination of 32 years in both houses, I can honestly say 95% of the time I loved it 5% of the time I hated it. That’s not bad.

    Robert Megna 03:51

    No, that’s, that’s quite good. So, in many ways, and again, a person who I actually worked in the legislature to and the governor’s office so a lot of people might not remember given how the political landscape has changed in New York. But moving from the assembly to the Senate was a promotion in a sense, because the assembly had been in control of the Democrats, I guess for quite a while and moving to the Senate, you were moving to the majority,

    Stephen Saland 04:25

    this different size or to 10 plus years in the assembly, being in the minority. I was a Republican. And when I went to the Senate, lo and behold, I was in the majority and I remained in the majority for all but one term, two years during that 22-year period. Vastly different universe. You became much more of a player. You chaired a committee we had input into policy and that committee, it was for me A labor of love. During the course of my professional life, I’m a lawyer, I handled lots of child neglect and abuse cases. Needless to say, they were not particularly wholesome or little tough to stomach at times. And when I got to the legislature, I really wanted to do something about leveling the playing field for children and victims. And much of my career, I did that, and I chaired the Senate, Children and Families Committee for a number of years. And then the Education Committee. And then finally, the codes, committee. Codes handles everything involving the criminal law. And each experience was a rewarding one for me, I felt that I was contributing, and hopefully making things better. I’m sure they were number who would beg to differ. But when all was said and done, I’m not sure how many people get to live a dream, pushing at this point. And it still was a fulfillment of a dream.

    Robert Megna 06:08

    And I think for some of our listeners, I think it would be good to remind them that education and codes committees are two of the more powerful committees in the legislature. So, to be chairing those put you right in the middle of a lot of big issues that were confronting the state

    Stephen Saland 06:29

    they enjoyed the challenge was always a bit of a policy walk. I think I was always a bit better with policy than it was a politics.

    Robert Megna 06:38

    So, let’s get into that maybe a little bit. So as a Republican you mentioned, you know, how would you define yourself politically? And what was your governing philosophy?

    Stephen Saland 06:52

    It was probably socially moderate. And fiscally, I tended to be conservative. And when it came to law and order, quote, unquote, Law and Order issues, I, I tended to be conservative, but in all fairness, give you an example, when I was in the, when I was in the assembly, I was the ranking member of the codes committee, probably for eight out of the 10 years that was there. And lots of people would come to lobby me and I recall, one year, this is back in the 80s, friend of my wife’s said to me, oh, gee, this civil liberties, flier, or periodical that they send out, mentioned me, and spoke highly of me. I said, why? Because my civil liberties rating was probably somewhere around 35. And so, I got a copy of it. And they recognized five people. Warren Anderson, Majority Leader, Stanley favor the speaker, Mel Miller, the chairman of the codes committee, Ron Stafford, the chairman of the Senate Codes Committee, and me, surely complex puzzle. And so, the commentary basically said, he doesn’t vote with us most of the time. But his door is always open. He’s fair minded. He listens to us. And he often makes a difference and contributes, I could live with that. And if that’s what defines me, I’d be fine.

    Robert Megna 08:46

    Yeah. And I think

    Stephen Saland 08:48

    if I can just add, of course, also said please, never ever give me a rating as high as 3525. Surely, I’ll be primary.

    Robert Megna 09:04

    Well, speaking of that, it’s interesting. You mentioned all those figures. I actually work the Ways and Means Committee. I was an economist there, and I had the chance to work with Mel Miller. But I think it’s an interesting history of New York politics, just to go through the names you mentioned for that for that article, which is funny, but not why we’re here. So. But that’s a good lead up, because maybe you could now take us through the vote. You know, how do you recall that? And how did that unfold as you saw it? Well,

    Stephen Saland 09:47

    I’ll start where it started in 2011. And then I’ll backtrack. In 2011 I approached senator Skelos, who was the Senate Majority Leader and I had been the subject of considerable battle of lobbying, both by proponents of same sex marriage and opponents, because I probably lose one of just a handful of Republican senators who have not publicly stated the position for or against, and I met with countless people, groups, individuals, and going now backwards. In 2009, I had voted against a measure which would have provided for recognize recognition of same sex marriages or marriage equality. And I believe that time that civil unions would adequately resolve the issue or be a reasonable compromise. In fact, there were a number of people who were lobbying me to support so and as I delve more into the civil union issue, and read treatises and articles became readily apparent that civil unions really wouldn’t do the trick. It just would not provide equality. Then come back to my meeting with Senator Skelos, I approached senator Skelos, and I said to him, I’m considering voting for marriage equality. You know, I’m not there, but I’m thinking about it. And he almost immediately asked me if I’d be willing to go down to the second floor. Well, that’s the job that, you know, if I were to go to the governor’s office and negotiate with him, and he offered to have his counsel at that time to join me, and said, Sure, so the meeting was arranged a month into the governor’s office. And after the first session, which is sort of a feel at session, one, I concluded, I went back to some of the scholars and said, it’s a heck of a responsibility. I’d like to put together a team. And I don’t know if I asked for suggested. Senator Hannon and Senator Lanza set up a campaign in from Rhode Island, some of the lands of Lanza from Staten Island, be members of that team. Either way, that became the team. And thereafter, we negotiated, not necessarily at regular intervals, but somewhat frequently. And what we were negotiating about when it came to them as religious exemptions, there was concern that the bill that had passed, didn’t protect religious institutions Benevolent Association is religiously affiliated, not for profits well enough. And they were five states that recognize same sex marriage three by I think, three by court decision. And I think, to Connecticut and New Hampshire by statute. So, I looked at the statutes of those other states, prepare the note we had and ours seemed deficient in that religious exemption protection. What really became the concern was certainly constitutionally both state constitution and Federal Constitution, religious practices protected. However, there are nuances and among those nuances, many religious corporations, churches, synagogues, they have affiliates, not for profit, affiliates, benevolent affiliates, they provide services, they seek grants, for example of Catholic charities that are renowned for providing one or another service services for senior services for children and services for people with disabilities. And very often, they received funding from the state by so called RFPs for they respond to requests for proposals. And there was nothing in the initial bill, or the bill that had previously been considered or passed earlier that session in the assembly that provided that they could not be discriminated against or denied those benefits. And we wanted to make sure that they were treated on a level playing field but the fact that their religious doctrine did not permit them to recognize same sex marriage wouldn’t prejudice them on these social service types of programs. That became a rather big. And now remember, there were ultimately four Republicans who supported the same sex marriage bill. The final piece, I won’t take through all the nuances, because it’s probably pretty boring. But the final piece, much legislation, as you probably know, Bob has a paragraph with a severability provision that if one portion is struck down, the rest of the bill remains in effect, and continues to be law, we put in an inseverability clause, which basically said, this bill is to be construed as a whole. And if any portion is struck down, the whole bill gets struck down, somewhat unique. But it was really intended to safeguard those religious protections and to dissuade people from brilliant action and not, for whatever reason to knock them out. The process by which this passed, we didn’t pass the main bill first. We passed the amendment first, which in and of itself is different. We passed the amendment. And then the main bill was passed. Again, to make sure the safeguards. But when the day was done to build pass, Governor signed it that night. The rest is history. Let me

    Robert Megna 16:48

    push back a little bit on this because you your recollection, and thank you for that, because I think people often don’t know how complicated just the mechanics of getting bills done, can be and the nuanced that you mentioned. But this was hard politics to how did you figure out how to navigate that? And what kind of pressures will you feel

    Stephen Saland 17:28

    freshers for how many 1000s and 1000s of bills I voted on? I mean, if you combine the committee and on the floor 10s of 1000s of votes, I cast in the 32 years that was nothing rival this particular bill and it was certainly an extraordinarily topical hot button issue in 2011. And to this day, when I think about it, if I take the time to think about it. I’m convinced that senator Skelos wanted to get rid of the issue that he the Majority Leader prior to the 2012 election, and the best way to get rid of the issue was to see it pass. So, if he had a handful of Republicans, this is my opinion. If he had a handful of Republicans who are willing to support the bill, at their own peril, he could neutralize what would have been a very powerful issue in 2012. So that is why I think he gave me his blessings to co negotiating with the government. If you want to look at it a little more jaundice Lee. Sure, it was an enormous source of fundraising. Because there are considerable amounts of dollars, that some very well to do. People would pour in support of same sex marriage and in supportive trying to assist and have the skills hang on to his narrow majority, which is what ultimately, I believe they did.

    Robert Megna 19:26

    Thank you for that. Because I think people often forget to, in the dynamic of a place like Albany, leadership often may be behind the scenes working on things that at least publicly they would say they either had no interest in or were against. And this was a good example of that right?

    Stephen Saland 19:54

    Again, I never discussed this, in this particular topic, the set of skills but that was my assumption. And from his vantage point, I think it was for his political purposes. A smart move. You know, if I remember correctly, I think there were one or two more votes for the amendment, then there were votes for the bill. And I think that he might have voted for the amendment and against the bill. And I think Senator Hannon might have done that also.

    Robert Megna 20:33

    So, speaking of that, the courageous vote, if I can add my own subjectivity to this was your vote behind the scenes is behind the scenes, you had to publicly take this vote. The assumption is that it costs you politically, how would you talk through that? Is that a proper assumption? To me?

    Stephen Saland 21:00

    That’s reasonable. I certainly knew that that was a very real possibility. I mean, they there was just so much lobbying. And at times, it transcended anything rational. But I understood, I mean, the sentiments were intense on both sides. As I said, on the floor that night, in several times thereafter, I resolved to do the right thing. And virtually everybody, when I tell you, I got 1000s, I mean, literally 1000s, of emails, letters, phone calls, there were days where we had to put our office phones on for already, because we couldn’t get our work done. Because the phone rang constantly. And we had several people picking up the phones, just one after another after another. So, I found that we just put them I mean, I’m a technological Neanderthal so I didn’t do it. But the office took care of it. Most, if not, the vast majority of people would conclude, from whichever perspective they took was do the right thing. It was determined to do the right thing. But doing the right thing means the same thing to the proponents in the end. So, with all said and done, I did what I felt was the right thing. I reflected on my upbringing, my parents, much like, I think virtually all parents taught me to be respectful, tolerant, and considerate of others. And when it finally came to the moment of truth, they did the right thing. My conscience was clear, and I was ready to accept whatever the consequences were unfortunately, for me, the consequences were that I lost my seat be cautious. After prevailing in the primary, my opponent in the primary state on the conservative party line in guard, that’s, I think, about 17,000 votes, and I lost by 2000.

    Robert Megna 23:29

    So it wasn’t that your primary opponent had beaten you in the primary. So, you even prevailed in the primary. It was the general that,

    Stephen Saland 23:39

    yeah, but he was, he was a spoiler. But I expected the problem and it turned out to be an unmanageable problem. The irony of it all was I had told my wife, who by the way, was an ardent supporter of marriage equality, lobbied me incessantly until one day added just a card that said, as I said, stop. At the time we were married about, I think it was 46 years. We’re currently married about 57 years. And I rarely, if ever, through all those years, raise my voice to my wife. She was stunned.

    Robert Megna 24:20

    But I think it shows how intense the issue was even within families, right?

    Stephen Saland 24:27

    Yeah, yeah. It was almost if you think about it. I’ve never quite thought of it this way. But it was the textbook study of how the system should work. And, as you know, from your years in Albany, so much of what goes on in Albany is done along party lines. While this vote, to some extent reflected party lines there. There was no effort At least on the Republican side, to insist that people toe the line and vote against the bill.

    Robert Megna 25:11

    Yeah, it’s interesting because being a chair of the codes committee, you know that that committee often was the place where bills ended up that didn’t get voted on. So, you know, that was always something, I guess that was a possibility. But ultimately, this was a vote of conscience for the members, I guess, is what you’re saying. It

    Stephen Saland 25:39

    was. I mean, I can’t quantify it, and I can’t point to anybody. But I truly believe there were probably others among Republicans who voted against the bill, who probably would have voted for the bill, if not for the fear of primary.

    Robert Megna 25:59

    You know, I always think I understand the trends in politics and I’m always wrong. Do you think there would even be the controversy today? If the Oh, no,

    Stephen Saland 26:09

    I’ll tell you interesting story. One of my children in his family live in Chappaqua. The summer of 2013 I believe I was in Chappaqua on Vudu, I see. But President Clinton and my wife who we talked to a chair talking with President Clinton. I join them, she introduces me. And he somehow that we got to the topic of same sex marriage. I think my wife very proudly said, my, my husband is. And he said, which I knew at that time, he said, I have never seen public opinion change so rapidly on an issue, as it did same sex marriage. He said, if you took that vote today, you’d still be in the Senate. But the irony was I started to say before, in 2011, I told my wife, I wasn’t running again, that I just didn’t want to run it. I had had enough. And I climbed as many mountains as I cleared as I cared to climb. And then when I took that vote, I said to her, I have to run once more. I can’t let those excuse me, bastards think they could chase me out of office. So instead, they defeated me.

    Robert Megna 27:38

    No, I think you’re the Yeah, no, that was the courageous stand to take. So, reflecting back on your career, I think, you know, we’ve spent most of this conversation talking about one single boat, you took after an entire career in public service that you described how much you loved it, replaying all of this, would you do anything differently now?

    Stephen Saland 28:05

    No, I see no reason to do what I did. Because it was the right thing to do was right, then it’s right now that it’s nothing that I dwell on. And I’m actually pleased and proud that I did it.

    Robert Megna 28:23

    Senator, thanks for doing this interview with us this podcast. It was a pleasure talking to you about your recollections. And though I think you think it’s ancient history? I don’t I think it’s still something that folks need to hear about. And I think this also people always need to reflect on how legislative politics evolve over time and how complicated some of the backroom stuff can be. So, so thanks for your insight.

    Stephen Saland 28:59

    Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. I remember more than I thought I would remember. And I probably be remiss if I didn’t mention it, again, similar had in Senator lands and certainly Governor Cuomo. I don’t know what people presume goes on behind closed doors. Sometimes, sometimes it could be theatrical. None of that occurred during these negotiations. They were truly professional and gentlemanly, which might surprise people.

    Robert Megna 29:36

    I was reflecting on this conversation before we talked and, you know, my former boss, I’m sure was a proponent of getting this done through the process and was known to Occasionally shake hands hard on things like this. But this was not a vote or a bill signing that was going to hurt him. Right? I mean, and so I think whenever we think about credit for things like this, we have to think about the folks were, you know, it wasn’t a vote that was going to help them politically. We had a,

    Stephen Saland 30:19

    I believe 33-member majority truly meant you needed 32 to pass the bill. And nobody ever wants to be the 32nd vote ever wants to be a second. And I can recall, in my early conversations, I met with the governor privately in addition to the meetings that they had with the senators, Wednesday, and had, and initially, I said to him, I don’t want to be the 32nd vote, please find the 33rd. And he seemed confident that he would, that at some point, he became less than confident. In fact, he, he let me know that he couldn’t assure me that there was a 33rd vote, said in me a 32nd. Vote, please find the 33rd. And he said he go at it. And subsequently he did. There was one more vote after that. But he treated the more than fairly and no effort to bulldoze just was an honorable negotiation.

    Robert Megna 31:42

    You know, maybe it’s the issues, I think maybe when the issues get so you know, in many ways important when they’re really about. So significant a subject, maybe old school, like banging heads politics isn’t as effective. I don’t know.

    Stephen Saland 32:06

    I mean, I’ve seen it both ways, other than the outcome of my race. I cannot, not one bad word to say about any, any of the negotiations that was all similarly, in good faith and all driven by a desire to get it done.

    Robert Megna 32:27

    Again, thanks for that. That’s a great postscript to this. And again, I want to thank you for taking the time. And I do think that our listeners will get a lot out of this both the discussion of how it happened, and a chance to hear from you. So, thank you. Thank you, Bob.

    Alexander Morse 32:59

    Thanks to Senator Steve Saland and Rockefeller Institute President Bob Megna for that conversation illuminating some of the political considerations involved in achieving bipartisan support for marriage equality. And thanks again to our guests in the first episode of this two-part series on marriage equality, Heather Trela, fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, Leigh Wedenoja, Senior Policy Analyst here at the Institute and Nate Gray, Executive Director of the Pride Center of the Capital Region.

    Let us know what you thought about this episode. Please rate, subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcasts. Transcripts are also available on our website. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff Joel Tirado, Laura Rabinow, and Laura Schultz for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Policy outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation. Learn more at or by following at Rockefellerinst. That’s Rockefeller i n s t on social media. Have a question comment or idea? Email us at [email protected].

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Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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