NY Marriage Equality Advocates Underscore Unity

In another sign that marriage equality advocates here are interested in forgoing internecine rivalries in favor of a united and, hopefully, smart push to win State Senate approval before the Legislature adjourns in late June, leading groups in the fight have announced the formation of New Yorkers United for Marriage.

The coalition was unveiled publicly on April 20 in a conference call with LGBT media and progressive bloggers that featured representatives from the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Marriage Equality New York, and Freedom to Marry.

Though the formalization of a coalition under the name New Yorkers United for Marriage allows advocates to clearly communicate critical messages to the LGBT community, the wider public, and Albany legislators, groups fighting to enact a law legalizing marriage for same-sex couples have been coordinating their efforts since at least last summer’s run-up to the legislative primary and general elections.

On March 9, a group of nine advocates representing these groups and others met for an hour with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has repeatedly stated that winning marriage equality is a priority for his administration.

Those in attendance emerged from that meeting with glowing assessments of the governor’s intentions to see the job get done.

“The governor really showed his commitment and leadership on this,” Ross Levi, ESPA’s executive director, said at that time. “And the fact that he gave so much time and brought so many resources from his office lends a substance to that commitment.”

Another participant, who has worked with Cuomo in the past but asked not to be named, said, “The governor is really, really focused on this. He is putting the smartest people in his office on it. I’ve only ever seen him this excited about something a handful of times.”

Announcement of the coalition differed in one key respect from the March 9 meeting with the governor –– this time, Marriage Equality New York, a statewide grassroots group that has worked the issue for more than a decade, was included. Cathy Marino-Thomas, MENY’s board chair and communications director who had criticized the lack of grassroots participation in the Albany meeting, was among the four advocates on Wednesday’s call.

One major coalition member not on the press call was the Log Cabin Republicans. In a release the following day, the group’s New York State chair, Gregory T. Angelo, framed the issue in terms Republicans could readily embrace, saying, “Marriage is not a progressive or conservative issue. It’s an issue of equal rights for taxpaying citizens of this state.”

With the heavily Democratic Assembly having approved marriage equality legislation three times since 2007, advocates face the task of finding at least 32 votes in the Senate, which has a 32-30 Republican majority. In December 2009, the bill was defeated in a 38-24 vote, with eight Democrats joining all 30 Republicans in rejecting it.

In the wake of the 2010 elections, there are 26 public supporters of marriage equality in the Senate, all of them Democrats.

In statements made on the record to Gay City News and other media outlets, five senators who voted against the marriage equality bill in 2009 –– Democrats Joe Addabbo and Shirley Huntley of Queens, and Republicans James Alesi of Fairport, Greg Ball of Brewster, and Joseph Griffo of Utica –– have indicated they are examining their position on the issue, and at the current time are either undecided or undeclared. Griffo first indicated his neutrality in an email his office sent to Gay City News on April 26.

Rayan Aguam, the senator’s director of communications & community relations, wrote, “Senator Griffo won't comment until it's clear which bill will come before the Senate for a vote. He wants to see all the details of the legislative proposal laid out before him before he makes his decision. It wouldn't surprise anyone if Senator Duane's current bill is amended or if another bill is substituted.”

With Bronx Democrat Ruben Diaz, Sr., a Pentecostal minister, an implacable gay rights foe, conventional wisdom has been that advocates need to move at least one or two of the three remaining Democrats (a group that also includes Brooklyn’s Carl Kruger, now facing federal corruption charges) and somewhere between three and five Republicans to achieve victory.

Despite the lack of public support from Republicans, the GOP Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos of Long Island, has committed to having his caucus discuss the bill, predicting they would agree to allow a floor vote.

An April 20 New York Times story that broke the news of the coalition reported advocates have targeted roughly a dozen Republicans, including Alesi, Grisanti, Andrew Lanza of Staten Island, Greg Ball from Putnam County, and Roy McDonald from a district north and east of Albany.

Indicating that list did not reflect any public prognostication he has made, ESPA’s Levi said, “When you put together the districts that Republicans represent across the state and how support for the issue has increased there, there are only a tiny number who wouldn’t be focused on as being gettable.”

Numerous recent polls have put support for marriage equality in New York State as high as 57 or 58 percent, with opposition at less than 40 percent and comfortable favorable margins found across geographic, age, racial and ethnic, and religious lines.

Brian Ellner, an HRC senior strategist heading up that group’s New York marriage efforts, said, “You should not read anything special into those names.”

Marc Solomon, who led MassEquality, the group that successfully defended the 2003 high court victory in the Bay State against legislative interference, prior to joining Freedom to Marry as its national campaign director, said, “What I learned from my experience in Massachusetts is there are people who come on board who you don’t expect.”

Advocates participating in the press call would not speculate on whether any Republicans would publicly announce their support for marriage equality prior to the bill’s consideration on the Senate floor, sidestepping the question of how they could be confident of victory without getting the necessary votes on the record in advance –– never mind the issue of how Republicans would agree to a floor vote absent visible pressure from one or more of their own.

“The only math that we are focused on now is the 58 percent who support us,” Levi said.

The challenge remains, however, in finding the key to unlocking at least a small bloc of GOP senators from a caucus previously unanimous in their opposition to gay marriage willing to stand up for the issue among their party colleagues.

Though the Times reported the coalition is prepared to spend $1 million on a media blitz that would include TV and radio ads, the call’s participants would not confirm that number nor were they prepared to discuss where and when the campaign would roll out.

The coalition has engaged the media and political strategy services of Jennifer Cunningham and her firm, SKDKnickerbocker. Cunningham was formerly a top official at the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, one of the state's most powerful labor organizations, and has played key roles in some of the governor's political campaigns.

Following the call, Freedom to Marry’s founder and executive director, Evan Wolfson, told Gay City News, “We are committed to doing whatever is needed.”

Wolfson voiced confidence about the coalition’s readiness to respond to negative ads from groups opposed to equal marriage rights, but suggested groups like the National Organization for Marriage, which has made huge efforts in other states, might not play in a big way in New York.

“We wouldn’t be surprised if there is a token anti-gay showing, enough for them to fundraise around,” he said.

Anti-equality groups, he argued, don’t see New York as an attractive battleground, understanding that the failure to advance marriage equality to date has more to do with “the quirks of Albany” than public attitudes here.

Still, responding to the Times article about the coalition, which was headlined “Cuomo Helps Groups Mobilize for Gay Marriage Bill,” the Bronx’s Diaz immediately issued a release saying, “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.”

Asked whether any daunting red flags had emerged in the six weeks since they met with Cuomo in early March, both Wolfson and Levi said none had. But, in language almost identical to Levi’s, Wolfson added, “We still need to do the work.”

One big push the coalition is publicly working on right now is the effort to pull LGBT New Yorkers and their allies to Albany for ESPA’s annual Equality & Justice Day lobbying push. That gathering is scheduled for Monday, May 9.