Marriage in New York: Game On

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com April 21 2011 8:15 AM ET

The new coalition New Yorkers United for Marriage was barely a day old Wednesday afternoon when Sen. Ruben Díaz Sr., the most outspoken marriage equality opponent in the state legislature, lobbed a criticism at the campaign.

“I am deeply offended that during this Holy Week, which is a most sacred time to millions of New Yorkers, Governor Andrew Cuomo is working hard to mobilize elected officials to legalize homosexual marriage in New York,” said the Bronx Democrat and Pentecostal minister, who has two gay brothers and a lesbian granddaughter but pointedly rejects the label of “homophobe.”

While his may be the loudest objection, it certainly will not be the last or even the most significant. Díaz’s ability to influence proceedings by threatening to caucus with the other side has largely been neutralized in the Republican-controlled senate, leaving other marriage equality opponents with more sway on the majority party. In conversations with The Advocate, some of those forces said they stand ready to launch their own campaign against marriage equality in the coming days.

“The intensity is rising so we are making our plans to do everything we can to make sure that the bill that would destroy marriage does not pass,” said Michael Long, chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State. “We knew this was coming. I’m fully aware that there’s been an immense amount of pressure being put on legislators to try to convince them to change the definition of marriage.”

A powerful force in state politics, the Conservative Party endorses Republicans and threatens to withhold its coveted ballot line from candidates who vote for marriage equality. Long said that stance would not change.

“We’re not a single-issue party, but there are a few issues where the line in the sand is drawn,” he said. “Changing the sanctimony of marriage is one of them.”

His comments indicate the challenges that remain for advocates, who, despite unseating three antigay senators in the past two years, still need to secure six votes from an assortment of Democrats and Republicans with different political pressure points. In order to succeed, New Yorkers for Marriage Equality was formed to ensure the most effective coordination and deployment of resources across tasks like communications, fieldwork and lobbying.

Backed by the popular governor, Andrew Cuomo, the coalition includes four major LGBT rights groups: Empire State Pride Agenda, Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry, and Marriage Equality New York. Their stated goal is to enact a bill before the end of the current legislative session, which is scheduled to end in June. (On Thursday morning, the Log Cabin Republicans of New York State announced it had also joined the coalition.)

The formation of the coalition provides tacit acknowledgment of mistakes in previous efforts, even if leaders declined to evaluate the past outright in a call with bloggers and LGBT media on Wednesday afternoon. In 2009 the marriage equality bill was defeated by a 38-24 vote in the senate, then controlled by Democrats, despite having passed the assembly three times.

“More coordination is always good,” said Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. “I think we are thrilled that we have unprecedented unity. We thought, as closely as our groups have been working and we have been for a long time, we wanted to take that to the next level, to be able to show the world that unity that we have.”

Until now, advocates have met in secret for the past month at the office of the governor, who has vowed a personal push for marriage equality. In the weeks ahead, they plan to raise the profile of the issue substantially with a media campaign that will “use every tool in the toolbox” to communicate that a historic majority of New Yorkers support marriage equality, as indicated by a recent Siena Research Institute poll that found support at 58%.“This is very clearly in our state a moderate, mainstream issue, and
we’re going to make that clear,” said HRC senior strategist Brian Ellner about the media piece, details of which are still being determined, according to advocates.

The
coalition plans to spend as much as $1 million on media, according to
The New York Times, which first reported on the plans and said that
Jennifer Cunningham, a powerhouse consultant with close ties to Cuomo,
would oversee the strategy with her firm, SKD Knickerbocker. Although
the report indicated the administration would supervise the efforts,
advocates said all the final decisions would be theirs.

“The
groups are coordinating among ourselves as we have been and while we are
appreciative of the support of the governor, clearly this is the
advocates doing our job,” said Levi during the call.

Part of
that job will entail more outreach to labor and clergy, they said,
particularly as avenues to engage people of color. Levi said the Empire State
Pride Agenda planned to add more high-level clergy to its Pride in the
Pulpit program, which includes more than 700 clergy and faith leaders in
support of marriage equality statewide. Ellner said that HRC is working
with the NAACP and the National Action Network led by the Reverend Al
Sharpton, while it continues to film everyday New Yorkers for its
marriage equality video series.

The marriage equality bill needs 32
votes to pass the senate, and currently 26 votes are confirmed in
support. While the Times reported that advocates plan to focus their
lobbying on three Democrats who voted against the bill in 2009 and as
many as 12 Republicans, five of whom the newspaper named, coalition
members cautioned against drawing conclusions from the report.

“You
should absolutely not read anything special into that,” said Ellner.
“We are looking at all members of the senate for votes and having those
conversations.”

Of course, opponents plan to speak with
senators too. Although the extent of any role for the National Organization for
Marriage remains unclear, NOM Exposed reports that two years ago, the
antigay group spent $600,000 on “media and voter outreach” in 25 state
senate districts, the bulk of which was used for phone calls to
lawmakers and print, radio, and TV advertising. Last week the group sent
an action alert to prime supporters in New York, and in Maryland, where the
marriage equality bill failed to advance in the house of delegates this
year, NOM threatened to spend $1 million to defeat any lawmaker who
voted for the measure.

NOM did not respond to a request for comment.

Also
expected to voice opposition is the Catholic Church, a powerful
religious lobby in New York that proved instrumental in defeating the
bill in 2009. Last month, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the face of the
church in the state, appeared on 60 Minutes and compared marriage
equality to incest.

A spokesman for the New York State Catholic
Conference, the public policy arm of the church, was unavailable for
comment Wednesday, but marriage equality advocates pointed to polls
showing support from a majority of American Catholics. Data from the
Public Religion Research Institute last month, for example, indicated that 71% of
Catholics support marriage equality when it is defined as civil marriage
“like you get at city hall.”

“Catholic voters are listening less
and less to the instruction of the hierarchy on this issue because they
don’t agree with it and they have their own experience with gay and
lesbian people in their families,” said Marc Solomon of Freedom to Marry
on the call. “That’s something that we’re seeing more and more [around
the country].”

However, opponents emphasized that the outcome
depends on specific conditions in New York, where a Quinnipiac
University poll last week found that Republican voters oppose marriage
equality by 61% to 34%. They intend to remind lawmakers of that.

“We’re
still confident that Republicans remember that they can’t lose their
base over this issue,” said the Reverend Jason McGuire, executive director
of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms and a representative for evangelical
Protestants in the state. He said the Coalition to Save New York
Marriage, of which his group and the Conservative Party are members,
would make its voice heard soon.

“We’ve been waiting for this
action to be taken and I think you’ll see us rolling out in the next
coming days and weeks,” he said, though he declined to discuss
specifics. He added, “This is kind of a shot across the bow that both
sides have been waiting for.”