When a bill legalizing gay marriage came to the floor of the New Jersey State Senate in 2012, Jeff Van Drew – then a Democratic state senator – decided to break with the Democratic caucus and vote no.
“I sincerely believe that we do need to protect every individual’s civil liberties, but I also believe that marriage, throughout all recorded history, has been between a man and a woman,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in January 2012, shortly before the vote was held.
Van Drew, now a Republican member of Congress, was confronted yesterday with a similar bill in the U.S. House codifying the right to gay marriage. And once again, he chose to vote out of step with his caucus – but this time, he broke with his Republican colleagues and voted in favor of marriage equality.
When asked about his decision to vote yes, Van Drew told the New Jersey Globe today that he was simply following what the Supreme Court has already declared to be the law of the land.
“The Supreme Court made its decision,” he said. “You can’t pick and choose the Supreme Court positions you like and the Supreme Court positions you don’t like… I recognize it, I accept it, and I move on.”
Pressed for his personal belief on gay marriage, which enjoys huge popular support nationwide, Van Drew said that the Supreme Court is his “guide” on the issue while tacitly offering his support for marriage equality.
“I believe we should leave people alone at this point,” he said. “It’s existed for years, and my personal belief is that it’s time to move on.”
Christian Fuscarino, the executive director of the prominent New Jersey LGBTQ group Garden State Equality, said that he was happy Van Drew had broken ranks with the Republican Party, which remains formally opposed to gay marriage.
“The majority of Americans support the right to marry who you love,” Fuscarino said. “It’s clear this is not a red or blue issue, this is an American issue. We’re glad that Congressman Jeff Van Drew sees that clearly.”
The House vote is the latest twist in Van Drew’s complicated history on LGBTQ rights issues.
In 2006, the New Jersey Legislature took the first step towards giving gay couples legal recognition by establishing civil unions, granting them many of the benefits of marriage without going so far as to call it “marriage.” Van Drew, who was a Democratic member of the State Assembly at the time, said he voted for the bill.
Van Drew was a harder sell on gay marriage itself, however. Right before Chris Christie took office as governor in 2010, Gov. Jon Corzine and legislative leadership attempted to go one step further and fully legalize same-sex marriage, but they were foiled in the Senate by six Democrats – among them Van Drew – who opposed the measure.
Van Drew remained against gay marriage in 2012 when legislative Democrats made a second attempt, but his opposition wasn’t enough to stop the bill from passing 24-16 in the Senate and 42-33 in the Assembly; Christie vetoed it almost immediately afterwards.
After Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson declared marriage to be a right for same-sex New Jersey couples in 2013 – and the U.S. Supreme Court did the same nationwide in 2015 – the issue largely faded into obscurity in New Jersey politics. (Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that finally codified gay marriage into state law.)
When Van Drew made the leap to the House in 2018, he quietly reinvented himself as a modest fighter for LGBTQ rights. Like nearly every other Democrat in the House, he was a cosponsor of the Equality Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“All Americans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, must be treated equally under the law,” Van Drew said in 2019. “Fairness and equality are core American values, and it is time we finally fully end discrimination against LGBTQ Americans.”
But after he switched to the Republican Party at the end of 2019, Van Drew reinvented himself on the issue once again, removing himself as a cosponsor of the Equality Act and voting against it when it came before the floor again in 2021.
Earlier this year, Van Drew was among the New Jersey Republicans who cried foul over LGBTQ educational standards, excoriating New Jersey’s curriculum and floating legislation to require parental notification for certain LGBTQ-related lessons in schools.
“We’re actually going to take little boys and girls that we send to school and start teaching them about gender-ID and gender change and other things that just are not appropriate at that age,” Van Drew told Fox News in April. “It’s absurd and it’s painful.”
Such comments and policies, Fuscarino said, should make those who applaud Van Drew for his gay marriage vote wary of his broader stance on LGBTQ issues.
“As great as it is for someone to vote in favor of marriage equality, we need to put into perspective the wide variety of LGBTQ issues that Jeff Van Drew has not been in favor of,” Fuscarino said. “This one yes vote doesn’t negate all of the other positions he’s taken that have been against progress for the LGBTQ community.”
Van Drew was far from the only House Republican to support the House’s gay marriage legislation; 47 Republicans voted in favor, representing nearly a quarter of the Republican caucus. Two Republican congressional candidates in competitive New Jersey districts, former Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) and businessman Bob Healey, both said they’d also have supported the bill.
“Disappointed in some of my future GOP colleagues who voted NO,” Healey said on Twitter. “You ought to be able to love who you want to love and marry who you want to marry.”
But New Jersey’s other sitting Republican member of Congress, Rep. Chris Smith (R-Manchester), voted no. Smith’s office has not released a statement on his vote and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
New Jersey’s 10 Democratic House members, all of them staunch social liberals, voted in support of the legislation, as did every other House Democrat. Once a controversial issue in the party, is now a no-brainer issue for virtually every Democratic elected official in the country, and Democrats have said the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative turn requires them to take immediate action.
“We are moving with urgency because the radical rightwing Supreme Court no longer recognizes a right to privacy and has signaled it respects no precedents in its quest to impose Republicans’ extremism on America,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) said in a statement. “These times demand vigilance and action on behalf of our neighbors.”
But Van Drew said that such urgency is misplaced, and argued that conservatives in Congress and on the Supreme Court have little desire to go after gay marriage.
“This was more about showmanship,” he said. “Nobody in the Republican Party is going after gay marriage or interracial marriage or any of this stuff… But since it was a vote, I wanted to say for the record that I recognize what the Supreme Court did.”