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Cuomo's Marriage Tour

Cuomo's Marriage Tour

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo kicks off a statewide tour in New York on Tuesday to build public support for his legislative agenda for this year, which includes a focus on passing marriage equality. Called the "People First" tour, the campaign will begin in Syracuse and visit various parts of the state in the coming days to rally voters to press lawmakers to act before the session ends in late June.

"Our entire team is going to travel the state to speak directly to New Yorkers about the issues that can move this state forward, and it begins in Syracuse," said Cuomo in a statement that announced the first stop of the tour late Monday. "We need to pass a property tax cap, ethics reform, and marriage equality during this legislative session. The clock is ticking, but when the people speak, the politicians will listen. We will assemble a broad coalition of New Yorkers to support this agenda and work tirelessly to get it passed in Albany."

The governor's office did not respond to a request for more information about the specifics of the tour, but if the past provides any guide, Cuomo could reference marriage equality in high-profile speeches and deploy deputies to speak with LGBT audiences around the state. Whatever the format, observers say the tour represents a signature strategy of the popular governor and former attorney general, who successfully made his case to the public in order to move lawmakers to pass a budget on time this year.

"I think we've seen from this governor that he believes in democracy and making sure that the people are holding their elected officials accountable, are being good bosses of their legislators," said Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. "I think he realizes that is a smart way to engage around your legislative priorities, and I agree."

The Empire State Pride Agenda hosted a lobby day on Monday that drew an estimated 1,200 participants to Albany to urge lawmakers to act on marriage equality and other measures including a long-stalled transgender rights bill. Cuomo, who was in meetings nearby, dispatched lieutenant governor Robert Duffy, the former Rochester mayor and police chief, to address the crowd, while the New York State Democratic Committee released the script of a new robo-call from the governor to New Yorkers in support of marriage equality.

The choices prompted questions in the press, but advocates expressed no concern about Cuomo's decision not to attend the lobby day, which fits with his low-key pattern of appearances. This past weekend, he skipped the Legislative Correspondents Association show, a must-do event for previous governors, and he declined to attend a fund-raiser for President Barack Obama last month in Manhattan. Within the LGBT community, Cuomo did not attend the Human Rights Campaign gala in New York in February, sending deputy secretary for civil rights Alphonso David to speak on his behalf, and it only became clear at the last minute in October that, as a gubernatorial candidate, Cuomo would attend the Pride Agenda's Fall Dinner, another important event on the LGBT political calendar.

Viewed against this background, the governor's absence at the lobby day appears in keeping with the strategy expressed in the "People First" tour that begins on Tuesday.

"Today was clearly a day for the people to lobby," said Brian Ellner, senior strategist for HRC in New York, on Monday when asked about the governor's absence. "The governor has been pushing for this bill during the campaign, at the state of the state, and almost every day since, in no uncertain terms, and in passionate terms. We could not have an advocate working stronger on this issue in the state, working harder than he has to get this passed. Today was a day for lawmakers in Albany to hear form their constituents," he said.

Compared to Cuomo, the last time the lobby day was held in 2009, former governor David Paterson attended and spoke at the event. Later that year, the marriage equality bill lost in the state senate by a vote of 38 to 24.

Calling this year's effort a "different day," last week Cuomo said he felt "optimistic" that marriage equality could be passed this session, with a recent poll showing that 58% of New Yorkers support the issue. His office also oversees New Yorkers United for Marriage Equality, the bipartisan coalition of five LGBT organizations working to pass the bill with tactics like lobbying, phone banking and statewide TV advertisements. Business interests and religious leaders also have expressed support.

Despite strong reasons for optimism, marriage equality remains short of the 32 votes required to pass in the Republican-controlled senate, where 26 Democrats favor the bill and no Republicans have publicly announced support. While a historic majority of New York voters support the issue, the same Siena poll last month showed that marriage equality ranks third in importance among voters when compared to the other two Cuomo priorities of ethics reform and a property tax cap, which 52% of Republican voters described as their top priority, compared to 8% of Republicans who listed marriage equality as their priority.

In this sense, as he seeks to pass the marriage equality bill, Cuomo must balance the increasing popularity of the issue with the more delicate political reality, where Republicans are needed to pass the bill, even if they cannot appear to embrace the issue. The strategy of putting the people first and urging them to pressure their lawmakers seems to address this problem.

"I think he is working it behind the scenes," said Republican consultant Tom Doherty, who served in the administration of Gov. George Pataki. "Why should he be the face of gay marriage? He isn't the problem. I think it's a brilliant political strategy."

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