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Marriage equality volunteers in New York received a special guest Thursday evening when Chelsea Clinton helped kick off statewide phone banking efforts in Manhattan just hours after former president Bill Clinton announced his support for the campaign to win marriage by June.
"I was very grateful that my father gave me yet another reason to be proud this morning," she told the group of some 50 volunteers at the headquarters of 1199 SEIU in Midtown. "I am unabashedly biased toward my parents, and I am also unabashedly biased toward the right to marry."
She continued, "I also know, having grown up in politics, that sometimes we need to help politicians do the right things, and that we need to help constituents understand what's really at stake and how best to not only push but also thank their representatives."
Prior to her remarks, Clinton made some phone calls of her own after first sitting with a smaller group of volunteers for a brief training. Dressed in a New Yorkers for Marriage Equality T-shirt from the Human Rights Campaign, she asked precise questions including "What happens if we have technical difficulties?" and whether volunteers can make calls from remote locations, both of which were met with assurances.
Clinton, who married husband Marc Mezvinsky in New York last July, expressed hope that marriage equality would pass in time to become a first-anniversary present, although she acknowledged the hard work that remains. According toThe New York Times, opponents of marriage equality have financed 500,000 automated calls asking voters to contact undecided lawmakers, while the National Organization for Marriage has pledged to spend $1 million to defeat any Republican senator who votes for the bill.
The phone banking draws on volunteers recruited by the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition, which includes HRC, Empire State Pride Agenda, Freedom to Marry, the Log Cabin Republicans of New York, and Marriage Equality New York. The 3-1/2 hour sessions will take place twice per week on Mondays and Thursdays, becoming more frequent as an anticipated vote on marriage equality nears in the state legislature.
On Thursday volunteers made calls to prime Democratic voters in the 26 districts where state senators already support the marriage equality bill. Reading from a script that mentioned the 58% support for marriage among New York voters and the strong backing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, callers offered to patch voters through to their senator, where they could thank the lawmaker and urge him or her to take action this year. In the coming days, the phone banking will target undecided and less supportive lawmakers.
A phone bank supervisor estimated that volunteers made thousands of phone calls and reached hundreds of voters, resulting in more than 200 successful connections to lawmakers' offices. Volunteers included state senator Thomas K. Duane, the out gay lawmaker working with the coalition to pass the bill.
The phone banking represents the latest piece in an intensifying spring effort that includes a statewide TV advertising blitz, a major lobby day in Albany this Monday, and upcoming visits around the state by Cuomo, who has made marriage equality one of his priorities. Advocates expressed hope that the bill can be passed before the end of May, although they acknowledged they are preparing to continue through the session, which ends on June 20.
"I'm hoping that it only goes for three weeks and we're done, two to three weeks, but it would not surprise me if we went all the way through to the end of session," said 1199 SEIU political director Kevin Finnegan, whose health care workers union, among the state's most powerful labor organizations, hosted the phone bank. Finnegan holds the position previously occupied by Jennifer Cunningham, a close Cuomo ally and now the chief strategist for New Yorkers United for Marriage.
Finnegan, who is gay, described himself as being "in the rooms" for the effort, which needs to win support from at least three Republicans in the senate, where the marriage equality bill failed in 2009. He reported having "good" conversations with Republican senators with whom he has relationships.
Noting the unprecedented discipline of the coalition, the longtime Democratic operative also remarked on the "laser-focused" attention of Steven Cohen, the secretary to the governor, and the personal commitment of Cuomo to marriage equality. Finnegan worked for the governor during his failed first bid for the office in 2002, by which time he said Cuomo already had expressed interest in achieving marriage equality one day.
"He's as committed to this as he is committed to anything that he's doing. He believes this is a fundamental civil right. He's always felt that way. He doesn't even blink," said Finnegan.