THE CUOMO EVOLUTION
BY Julie Bolcer
August 08 2011 4:00 AM ET
Following the historic vote, the first from a Republican-controlled legislative body, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy said that working with Cuomo was “like taking a painting class from Picasso.” But if the governor made it look masterful, he admits that he never felt certain until he inked his signature on the bill, five minutes before midnight on June 24, the night it passed the Senate by a vote of 33 to 29.
“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.”