THE CUOMO EVOLUTION
BY Julie Bolcer
August 08 2011 4:00 AM ET
Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to make one point very clear about the marriage equality victory in New York.
“I was the governor, so I’m sort of the front person, win or lose,” he said in early July. “If it had failed, I would have been getting the blame. The reason it won was this was an unprecedented group effort.”
True, it was a group effort. The legislative win in the nation’s third most populous state capped a meticulously choreographed, bipartisan campaign that raised more than $2 million—over half of it from Republican-affiliated donors. A coalition of LGBT groups lobbied, undertook fieldwork, and disseminated messaging based on polls that showed a majority of New York voters supported marriage equality. And activists had prepared the ground by helping unseat three Democratic senators who voted against the bill in 2009 and replacing them with supporters, putting would-be opponents on notice.
Ask advocates from either party, however, and they will say that Cuomo provided the indispensable ingredient, a model of bold and smart leadership never before seen on the issue. His example energized the marriage equality movement after a season of setbacks in states including Maryland and Rhode Island, and it created the momentum that the governor himself touted as the latest instance of progressive trailblazing from New York, site of the Stonewall riots.
“They understand that this is a complex state, that if you can pass it here, you can pass it anywhere—pardon the pun,” he said days after signing the bill into law. Since then, he has been hailed with signs declaring “Thank You, Governor Cuomo” at the annual Pride march in New York City, and credited with raising expectations of full marriage equality support from Democratic politicians, even as President Barack Obama resists public calls to “evolve.”
“I think it changes the game in that it’s going to be a major question,” said Cuomo in his distinctive staccato cadence. “And then it’s going to depend on the individual and where and what circumstances, but it’s a question, and a valid question, and a powerful question where it didn’t exist six months ago. We passed the feasibility test.”
Cuomo, who was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton and subsequently New York State’s attorney general, was elected governor by a landslide on a reform platform last year. He embodies politics as the art of the possible. Faced with a Republican-controlled Senate, he completed the most successful legislative session in recent history, including a rare on-time budget marked by fiscal conservatism. Then he turned to his campaign promise to legalize same-sex marriage.
In a departure from the failed, often chaotic effort of 2009, the governor coordinated the work of five LGBT advocacy groups into a single coalition, New Yorkers United for Marriage, overseen by his office. He named marriage equality one of three high-profile legislative priorities and toured the state with the agenda. All the while, rather than alienate opponents of the bill, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the grandson of Italian immigrants included them in the conversation, inviting church lawyers to discuss religious exemptions language that met with approval from civil rights groups.