New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Monday that his choice last year not to vote for gay marriage was the worst decision of his nine-year legislative career, the strongest and most public statements he has made on the issue.
"Seventeen months ago, I stood up here and made the biggest mistake of my legislative career. I made a decision based purely on political calculations not to vote in support of marriage equality," Sweeney said from the Senate floor. "I failed in my responsibility as majority leader of this house of government to actually lead. I was wrong.
"To my fellow colleagues, to staff, and to those watching upstairs, let me tell you: Never, ever again will I allow that to happen," he continued. "The time for political calculations is over."
Sweeney's remarks came as he spoke in favor of a bill he sponsored to force public employees to pay more for health and pension benefits. He brought up the gay marriage vote as a cautionary tale of the consequences of failing to take bold action and encouraging his fellow lawmakers to do so on the pension question.
The Democrat has shown regret before for his decision on the gay marriage bill, but never as boldly.
The New Jersey Legislature created civil unions in 2006 following a court ruling that said gay couples should be granted the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual couples. Gay-rights advocates argue that there has been confusion over the law and that they have not been entitled to all the same benefits as other couples.
During the 2009 lame-duck session, then-Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, said he would sign a bill legalizing same-sex marriage as his incoming Republican successor, Chris Christie, threatened to veto it.
In January 2010, as he was about to become Senate president, Sweeney abstained from voting on the gay marriage bill. The Senate voted 20-14 against it. At the time, Sweeney said he thought voters would look not look favorably on lawmakers for pushing a social issue during while the economy was in trouble.
Gay-marriage advocates welcomed Sweeney's remarks with "open arms."
"The world evolves," said Steven Goldstein of the Garden State Equality group. "Our responsibility as advocates is not to hold grudges, but to pass laws."
Goldstein noted that while there are enough votes to pass a gay marriage bill in both houses of the Legislature, there are not enough to override a veto by Gov. Christie.
"It means New Jersey will have to win marriage equality through other means," Goldstein said.