Assembly Says It’s Set, Can the Senate Count to 32?

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Andrew Cuomo, New York’s new Democratic governor, has repeatedly emphasized that he “want[s] to be the governor who signs the law that makes marriage equality a reality,” saying in his January 5 inaugural speech, “We believe in justice for all, then let’s pass marriage equality this year once and for all.”

To be sure, State Senate Republicans voted 30-0 against out gay Manhattan Democrat Tom Duane’s equal civil marriage bill in December 2009, but Long Island’s Dean Skelos, the new GOP Senate majority leader, told the Log Cabin Republicans last October he would bring the issue before his party colleagues during the 2011-2012 Legislature, predicting, “I think our conference would say put it up, let it up” for a floor vote.

Many variables, few details emerge from advocates' push for marriage equality in New York

And polls over the past two weeks — one from Quinnipiac University, the other from Siena College — found that at least 56 percent of the state’s voters support equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, with 38 percent or less in opposition. Significantly, the results show the issue polling slightly better (61 vs. 60 percent) in the New York City suburbs, represented by a number of key Senate Republican targets, than it does in the city itself. Even upstate, equality has majority support, by a 51-43 margin, according to Siena.

In the wake, then, of a January 22 off-the-record Albany gathering of about 75 representatives from 50 organizations that support marriage equality — a meeting closed to the press — what are the near-term prospects for making New York the sixth state to allow same-sex couples to marry?

Nearly a dozen legislators, professional advocates, and grassroots leaders Gay City News has spoken to since last November’s election described the ways in which the ball is simultaneously in two courts — the governor’s and the new Republican Senate majority’s.

“Does the governor have the capital to fulfill his carefully articulated support for the issue?” is the way Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, the out gay Manhattan Democrat who has led his chamber in approving marriage equality three times since 2007 — and is confident of passage again this year — framed the potential for success. The Senate Republicans, he said, “have historically only done things transactionally. I’m not empowered to make that happen, but the governor can do it.”

In trying to bring a wildly out of balance state budget under control, Cuomo has already signaled his intention to leverage the GOP Senate to counter the traditional support for social services spending in the heavily Democratic Assembly; he also moved quickly this past week to offer a property tax cap sought by Republicans.

Ross Levi, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the community’s chief lobby group in Albany, is banking on Cuomo’s political muscle in the fight.

“There is a clear and credible path to marriage equality and [the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, or GENDA] as early as this session,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it’s not an incredibly challenging task that will require fortuitous circumstances.”

The governor’s role, he said, is critical.

“From the Pride Agenda’s perspective, Governor Cuomo is an extremely important ally and advocate,” he said, adding of his 2010 campaign, “It was rare to see Cuomo speaking publicly and not mentioning marriage, and not just when I was there. And it was one of his biggest applause lines.”

But from the perspective of Deborah Glick, O’Donnell’s out lesbian Manhattan Democratic colleague, questions of commitment and political capital remain very much open.

“It is always helpful to have the chief executive make it a priority,” she said of Cuomo. “But there’s no indication to me personally that it’s at the top of his list.”

The governor will push very hard to set a new tone in Albany by delivering a state budget on time by April 1. The period after the budget is completed, Glick said, may be the time for advocates to move.

“If the budget battle doesn’t go on too long,” she said, “then there’s an opportunity. Will he have the capital left?”

Timing is one of the toughest issues to pin advocates down on. While Glick pointed to the period between early April and the Legislature’s adjournment in late June, O’Donnell did not think action had to happen in 2011 to make success possible by November 2012. Levi, who has not sat down with Skelos since the November election, said flatly, “It’s not useful to talk about timing.”

In fact, Levi said the January 22 gathering, of which ESPA was one of the conveners, included expert presentations on messaging, polling data, and the economic benefits of marriage, but focused only “a little bit on the political landscape of Albany.”

Gay marriage supporters are also vague in their answers about when Republicans, a handful of whom — at least — must support the issue for it to be successful, might be expected to voice their intention to vote “yes.”

Duane’s bill was defeated 38-24 in 2009, but since that time, the number of public supporters of marriage equality in the Senate has grown to 26, all of them Democrats. Of the four remaining Senate Democrats, one — Ruben Diaz of the Bronx — is adamantly opposed, while the other three — Shirley Huntley and Joe Addabbo of Queens and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn — were all “no” votes last time.

Even if those three could be brought around, at least three GOP senators would also have to step up. Gregory T. Angelo, chair of the Log Cabin Republicans of New York, in late 2010 told Gay City News he thought the support of five or six Republicans was possible, while Jeffrey Friedman, a Long Islander who directs the political action committee of the grassroots group Marriage Equality New York (MENY), commenting at the same time, saw prospects for seven or eight GOP votes.

Angelo, who did not wish to comment in the immediate wake of the recent Albany meeting, earlier said, “It would not surprise me if there is a Republican that comes out publicly” for the issue in advance of his or her colleagues discussing it internally. Such a public show of support, however, is not an absolute prerequisite for the GOP conference moving a bill, according to Levi, O’Donnell, and Glick.

O’Donnell and Glick, however, did focus on what they said is a simple reality in the Legislature — bills brought to the floor are almost invariably carried by members of the majority, a tradition that would wrest control of the marriage fight from Duane. (It could also be a governor’s “program” bill, with no specific sponsor.) Politically, that’s a delicate, even uncomfortable matter, since the Chelsea Democrat is the Senate’s only openly gay member and so the one situated to explain the issue from his own personal vantage point, as O’Donnell has done very effectively on the Assembly side.

“The bill needs a Republican sponsor,” O’Donnell said, “somebody capable and confident of counting to 32.”

The Assemblyman offered a blunt follow-up.

“In 2009, the Senate Democratic leaders were not competent in running that vote,” he said. Asked if his criticism extended to Duane himself, O’Donnell responded, “Somebody has to be responsible for shepherding the issue, but it wasn’t him alone. My job has been made harder” by the lopsided loss in the Senate that year.

Through a spokesman, Duane indicated he was unavailable for an in-person interview in New York City or by telephone.

Others on hand at the Albany summit also declined to comment. Alphonso David, a former Lambda Legal attorney who now serves as Cuomo’s deputy secretary for civil rights, attended, but the governor’s office did not respond to the newspaper’s request to speak to an administration official about the meeting.

Across the board, supporters of moving the bill emphasized the improving climate for Albany action on gay marriage.

Levi has, on several recent occasions, noted the increase from 24 to 26 in public supporters of marriage equality in the Senate. Three incumbents — Democrat Hiram Monserrate of Queens (seeking to reclaim the seat he was expelled from in early 2010), Republican Frank Padavan, also of Queens, and Democrat William Stachowski — lost last year, at least in part due to their opposition to equality. Though four pro-gay Democrats also lost their seats, delivering the Senate back to the Republicans, in none of those races, Levi said, did marriage equality play a factor.

O’Donnell and Glick concurred that the defeat of more than half a dozen Democrats in the Assembly was similarly unrelated to passage there of the marriage bill. Glick lauded the efforts last year by Fight Back New York, an independent expenditure political action committee that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in helping defeat Monserrate, Stachowski, and Padavan.

“Fight Back New York was strategic and successful,” she said. “We need a strategic plan to target one or two senators. Even if you only win one, it sends shock waves.”

O’Donnell said Republicans, particularly those who represent suburban New York districts, may be seeing the handwriting on the wall.

“I would humbly suggest to Republican senators under 60, if they want a future, get on the right side on this issue,” he said. That is particularly applicable, O’Donnell said, to those, like Long Island’s John Flanagan, who might have aspirations for statewide office.

Levi and Cathy Marino-Thomas, MENY’s communications director, both emphasized the need for targeted senators to hear from their constituents.

“If this community wants marriage, we have to fight for marriage,” Marino-Thomas, who has been working on this issue for nearly a decade, said. “People have to work for their own equality. If they don’t want to work for their equality, they won’t get their equality.” Asked whether local activists are as engaged as they need to be in every target district, Marino-Thomas conceded, “We are working hard to achieve that. I think there are areas where we need to do better.”

MENY will be in Albany on February 8 for its annual Lobby Day, and ESPA will follow suit on May 10.

The Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, which, like ESPA, MENY, and Fight Back New York, was heavily engaged in last year’s Senate elections, has in recent months been rolling out video statements of support for marriage equality from prominent New Yorkers. On February 1, one of former President George W. Bush’s twin daughters released a video stating, “I am Barbara Bush, and I am a New Yorker for marriage equality.”

The bottom line, from O’Donnell’s standpoint, is a hopeful one. As was the case with the gay rights law in 2002, he argued, Republican leaders in New York may see taking marriage equality off the table as a way to preserve their control of the Senate, by neutralizing the hundreds of thousands — or more — of gay dollars that might otherwise come into play in 2012.

“If I were Dean Skelos and I wanted to keep my majority, I’d get this out the way first,” O’Donnell said.