Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke in his strongest terms to date Thursday about harnessing the momentum of the New York marriage equality victory nationwide, using a speech before his state's largest LGBT advocacy group to call for priorities including employment nondiscrimination legislation, stronger anti-bullying protections, repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, and "the right to marry in every state."
Midway through his 11-minute address to the annual dinner of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the governor pivoted to the national landscape as he called the passage of marriage equality legislation in New York a "universal victory."
"And now we're going to come with the rest of the equality agenda," he said with increasing volume and applause. "Nationwide, there are no federal anti-discrimination laws for LGBT and there need to be. There are no federal antidiscrimination laws for housing, or for employment. DOMA has to go away once and for all. We need a real anti-bullying program in this state and in this nation. And we need marriage equality in every state in this nation. Otherwise no state really has marriage equality. And we will not rest until it is a reality."
The governor also received loud cheers when he thanked the four Republican state senators who voted for the bill that passed in June. Only one of them, James Alesi, attended the event in Manhattan that raised more than $1 million for the Pride Agenda and attracted over 1,000 guests.
Cuomo received a leadership award presented by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who said his commitment to passing marriage equality in his first year in office represented a new model for politicians to follow.
"I believe it's a game changer for how every elected official has to view the issues of our community," she said. "They're no longer backburner. They're to be done immediately to define whether or not you are really committed to all Americans being equal."
The governor in turn praised Quinn, an out lesbian and 2013 mayoral frontrunner, saying, "She's not just a great person. She's a great leader. And the best is yet to be for Christine Quinn."
His explicit remarks on the national LGBT agenda inevitably sparked chatter about a prospective Cuomo bid for the White House in 2016. A number of pleased attendees called the speech "presidential."
"That speech will be remembered as the turning point," said one guest. "People will be talking about that speech in five years."
While he may have cemented his reputation as the most visible elected official to support marriage equality, Cuomo did not dispense directives to President Barack Obama when presented with the opportunity afterward by reporters.
"Far be it from me to give the president political or policy advice," he said.
Closer to home, marriage equality opponents in New York criticized Cuomo this week for calling their stance "anti-American" at a recent panel discussion. Asked about their demand for an apology, he said, "I don't believe there is a legitimate reason to oppose marriage equality that doesn't involve discriminating against people who are gay. That is my position."
The unprecedented national comments from Cuomo come as the Senate Judiciary Committee has set this Thursday for debate of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA and allow the federal government to provide benefits to married same-sex couples. The panel is expected to approve the bill, but it faces slim chance of consideration in the Republican-controlled House, which is defending DOMA against lawsuits in the courts.
"It's a step," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, sponsor of companion legislation in the House, who attended the Pride Agenda event. "But it's not going to go anywhere in the House right now."
In addition to the legislative track, a growing body of federal litigation is challenging DOMA. Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed a lawsuit in Massachusetts federal court on Thursday arguing that the law prevents military members, who now can serve openly, and their families from receiving equal benefits. Also on Thursday, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed a brief in the appeal of Gill et al. v. Office of Personnel Management, one of two cases in 2010 where a federal judge found Section 3 of DOMA, which prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, unconstitutional.
David Boies, co-counsel in the federal case challenging Proposition 8 in California, compared the litigation in an interview before his remarks to the Pride Agenda dinner. He called them "two paths to the same point" and spoke highly of the DOMA effort.
"The DOMA litigation has an additional advantage in the sense that historically marriage has always been a state issue," he said. "While I think they're both the same issue, the DOMA case is in some sense even a stronger case because it has both the equal protection and due process arguments and the states' rights arguments."
He conceded frustration with the pace of his case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which awaits ruling in an appeals court, but he expressed confidence all the arguments would see their day in the Supreme Court, and soon.
"I think that given how long it's taking us in California, the DOMA case might get there, although I actually think that probably we both get there in the October 2012 term," he said. "I think that's probably when both cases get there and I suspect they'll consolidate them for argument."