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.
“In Albany, you’re not sure until it is signed,” said the governor, who learned the ways of the capital nearly 30 years ago as an aide to his father, former governor Mario Cuomo. “If you are sure at any point before that, then you’re in dangerous territory.”
Key developments boosted confidence at times. Eleven days before the final vote, three Democratic senators and one Republican, James Alesi, who all previously opposed the bill announced their support. Another Republican, Roy McDonald, followed the next day. But the tally sat at 31, just one vote shy of passage, for more than a week, while ear-shattering protests for and against marriage equality flooded the state capitol building from morning to night.
“Nobody wanted to be 32, because nobody wanted to be the person who, for the Republicans, you could say, ‘Not only did you vote for it, but without your vote it wouldn’t have passed,’ ” said Cuomo.
A turning point came two days before the vote when Stephen Saland, an upstate Republican who led the last-minute negotiations over religious exemptions, told Cuomo privately that he would be the determinative vote. The governor had just informed him that Republican senator Mark Grisanti was wavering. In the end, Grisanti voted yes, but the governor said that Saland’s willingness to support the bill without political cover from his colleague represented a “real act of courage.”
Marriage equality proponents already have issued fund-raising appeals for the four Republican senators now under attack from groups such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Conservative Party of New York State, which has vowed to withhold its influential endorsement in the 2012 election. Many believe that losing the lawmakers would signal a major setback for the marriage equality movement, but Cuomo disagrees. He argues that the senators, whom he calls “people of principle,” understood the risks, which makes their action all the more commendable.
“There are many times when you have legislators who stand up and take gutsy positions that they’re penalized for,” said Cuomo, drawing a parallel to Congress members ousted over their vote for the assault weapons ban in 1994. “That’s why it’s gutsy.”
Although popular with Republican voters, Cuomo can’t, or won’t, say whether he would endorse those four Republican senators. He did, however, commit to vouch for their character.
“To the extent they have political trouble, it’s from the conservatives in their district,” he said. “I’m a Democrat. I’m not much help politically with conservatives. But to the extent my saying what they did, and explaining what they did can be helpful, I’ll do that.”
He’s also open to advising governors and coalitions in other states that could see legislative campaigns and ballot measures regarding marriage equality in the coming months. Maryland, Rhode Island, Maine, Oregon, and Minnesota pose possibilities.
“I’m the New York governor and I have plenty to keep me busy here, but to the extent our experiences can be helpful, I’d be willing to share them,” he said.
The same goes for the federal level, where Cuomo said he would be willing to lobby New York’s congressional representatives, including seven Republican members, on legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. No Republican congressional member supports the measure at this time.
“I can be helpful with the New York delegation and that would be my pleasure,” he said.
Back in Albany, pressure is now likely to mount on Cuomo to advance the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which, similar to the marriage equality bill, has passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly multiple times but remains stalled in the Republican-led Senate.
“It is a priority,” he said of the bill, which prohibits discrimination based on a person’s gender identity or expression. “I’m not saying that we’ll get everything done always. I don’t think this should be interpreted that way. There are no guarantees of success, but there are guarantees of principle and effort and I’ve expressed that.”
At 53, the Queens-born father of three teen girls (with ex-wife Kerry Kennedy) spends his free time riding his motorcycle and restoring muscle cars. Did any specific person inspire him to become one of the most prominent straight champions for equality (say, for example, the gay brother of his longtime partner, celebrity chef Sandra Lee)? Nope, just New York City.
“You know, you grow up in New York, one of the advantages is you have a vibrant gay community that you grew up with,” he said. “That’s what I did. So there was no one person. Sandy’s brother is gay, but this started, frankly, it started a long time before that for me.”
When Cuomo made an unsuccessful run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2002, he supported civil unions, which he called “feasible” for the time. He embraced marriage equality in 2006 during his campaign for attorney general, long after some other New York leaders, an experience that he acknowledged holds instructional value for politicians, like President Obama, who appear to be deliberating their position. In other words, most elected officials have evolved on the issue, and that is OK.
“We all like to say, ‘Oh, change is a good thing.’ We don’t really feel that way. It’s threatening, change. It’s also highlighted in the political arena because then people will point out a change. The suggestion is… [the fact] that you changed is a negative. No!” Cuomo countered, his voice rising. “We evolve, we grow. Society evolves, society grows.”
Under his leadership, few places feel more changed more quickly than New York, where same-sex couples from anywhere became eligible to marry July 24. Less than one year ago, Carl Paladino, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, criticized Cuomo for “exposing” his teenage daughters to the Pride march, a slight that continues to animate the governor, who brought up the subject.
“I put that picture on the conference room wall in my office in Albany just to make that point,” he said of the march. “I’m very proud of it and it’s a major part of what I believe and what I set out to do.”
This year Cuomo made sure his young daughters received a front-row seat to history. The girls sat in meetings with lawmakers at the capitol, and two of them accompanied their father for a victory lap on the Senate floor moments after the marriage equality vote.
“I wanted them to know that when you believe in something, you give it your all and you fight as hard as you can,” he said. “And win, lose, or draw, it’s about the effort, not about the odds. And they saw that.”