On May 10, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched his public push for same-sex marriage with a speech inside the glass-encased Gordon Student Center at the Onondaga Community College in Syracuse. Invited guests sat in folding chairs as Mr. Cuomo leisurely clicked through a slide show accompanying his speech. After 20 minutes, he sounded impatient. “Other states have already acted on marriage equality and passed New York,” he said. “It’s time New York catches up, and we have to do it in the next few weeks, in this legislative session.” On his official web site, the governor sounds even more urgent: “The time to correct this inequity in our system is now.”
But now is a relative term. The next day, Mr. Cuomo told the Albany press corps that he won’t introduce a bill until he is confident there are enough votes to pass it.
To that end, Mr. Cuomo has fired an opening salvo in the closing weeks of the legislative session, embarking a barnstorming tour that has already taken him to Syracuse, Buffalo and Nassau County, urging passage of what he called the most pressing issues in the state capital: capping property taxes, instituting ethics reform, and legalizing same-sex marriage.
Mr. Cuomo has been able to get a lot done in the notoriously byzantine world of Albany. He managed to steer a budget through the Legislature on time-a rarity. It reduced spending from the prior year-unheard of. Capping property taxes would further solidify Mr. Cuomo’s credentials as a fiscal conservative, and ethics reform would further woo the fickle editorial boards.
But nothing has the potential to either transform Mr. Cuomo into an iconic figure or puncture his image as an all-powerful executive capable of bending Albany to his will quite like the issue of same-sex marriage. One prominent gay activist who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from the governor, said Mr. Cuomo has let the activists build up expectations beyond reason. “In one way he’s dug himself a hole,” this person said. “Talking about getting it done and saying, unequivocally, he will get it done. There is no way to spin himself out of it.”
Other activists are dutifully maintaining their optimism. “We continue to believe the environment is strong,” said Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s largest gay lobby. “I don’t see how anyone can question the commitment and leadership of the governor on this issue … He’s going around the state and he’s only talking about three things. Marriage is one of them. I think that is a very big deal.”
The last same-sex marriage bill failed to pass the State Senate in 2009, after a handful of conservative Democrats sided with Republicans in opposing it. Advocates were crushed. And in the two years since that vote, many of the opposing Democrats retired, lost elections or were kicked out.
Those who remain have conveyed a potential willingness to join their fellow Democrats. State Senator Joseph Addabbo Jr. of Queens, signaled he was open to reconsidering his vote, and State Senator Shirley Huntley, also of Queens, is considered a possible convert by advocates. (State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx who led an opposition rally this past weekend, remains staunchly opposed.)
But even with recalcitrant Democrats on board, the bill would need bipartisan support. In the two years since the last vote, Republicans-none of whom voted for the measure in 2009-seized control of the upper chamber.
Last week, Mr. Cuomo hosted a reception in the governor’s mansion, where legislators could rub elbows with his parks commissioner. As one guest, State Senator Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, prepared to leave, Mr. Cuomo pulled him aside.
“Let me talk to you real quick,” Mr. Grisanti recalled the governor saying. “You heard what my tour is about?”
“I said,” Mr. Grisanti recalled recently, “on the tax cap, we passed it. On ethics reform, we’re working on it. And on same-sex marriage, I said right now, my answer would be no.”
The two were seated a few feet away in a pair of cushioned chairs, in the governor’s mansion where Mr. Cuomo grew up while his father, Mario, served three terms as governor. “I do have family members that are homosexual and have same-sex partners, and we talk about it,” Mr. Grisanti explained in a telephone interview with The Observer. “It is something I struggle with inside as to where I’m at with it. I mean, I’m all for the rights. I just have a problem with the word ‘marriage.'”
Asked to describe the governor’s reaction to his “no” position, Mr. Grisanti said, “He was fine about it.”
The loss of Mr. Grisanti-a freshman Republican from an overwhelmingly Democratic district-is a blow to Mr. Cuomo’s efforts to peel off the needed votes. For Republicans, the stakes are high. Conservative Party chairman Mike Long has threatened not to endorse any candidates who vote in favor of same-sex marriage, denying potential supporters an extra line on Row C of the ballot. Reached by cell phone this Saturday, he said his party helped Republicans win a one-seat majority in the 2010 elections, and that the victory was premised upon opposing same-sex marriage.
Those legislators have an “obligation to represent the positions they were elected on and if not, it would be betrayal,” said Mr. Long. “We all understood what we were doing when we started this.” But a handful of rich, conservative donors-like Paul Singer, chairman of the conservative Manhattan Institute, and financiers Steven Cohen and Clifford Asness-are helping bankroll the same-sex marriage push, according to The New York Times. Also stepping up his efforts is Mayor Bloomberg, the billionaire Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent who has been the biggest single donor to State Senate Republicans.
On Monday morning in Albany, Mayor Bloomberg stood with another potential Republican vote-State Senator Marty Golden of Brooklyn-at a press conference arguing for more antiterrorism funding from Washington. After the event, Mr. Bloomberg and his entourage of aides, security guards and one staff photographer walked the eighth-floor room in the Legislative Office Building where the event was held, while Mr. Golden lingered behind. Mr. Bloomberg was on his way to a series of meetings, including one with Republican state senators, to lobby for same-sex marriage. Mr. Golden said it would be polite, but futile.
The opposition group “hasn’t changed that much” from 2009, he said. “It’s not a subject for this year.” But, Mr. Golden said, the fallout for the Democratic governor won’t be so bad. “Nothing,” he said, would happen should Mr. Cuomo fail to get this passed. “It’s a social issue. It really has nothing to do with the bread-and-butter issues of the State of New York. People don’t give a rat’s ass about social issues. People are worried about paying their mortgage, paying their rent.”
Whether Mr. Cuomo should press the issue in the face of Republican opposition is a matter of some dissension among advocates. “Without [Republican support], we know what the results will be,” said Democratic State Senator Tom Duane of Manhattan. He called the 2009 failure to pass the legislation “terrible.”
Mr. Duane, the chamber’s only openly gay member, deferred when asked about the governor’s decision about timing the vote, if he should have it at all. “I think the governor, who has really been leading the coalition of advocacy groups on the issue, I think, is to be trusted with his decision making,” he said in an interview.
Assemblyman Matt Titone of Staten Island, who is gay, said the stakes are high for the governor. “If the bill was introduced, goes to the floor and fails, the governor will be face-to-face with a very resentful demographic, meaning the gay community. Quite honestly, I think they would feel a bit betrayed,” Mr. Titone said. “I think if the governor doesn’t submit his programing bill, I think there will be a lot of disappointment.”
Mr. Cuomo’s tour has taken an increasingly strident tone against the legislature. In Syracuse, Mr. Cuomo described “a government dominated by lobbyists” and said, “Right now, the people of this state don’t trust their government, for good reason.”
Mr. Titone, for his part, isn’t taking any offense to Mr. Cuomo’s rhetoric. For now.
“What we don’t expect is for the governor to let it slip away this session and then spend the next six months bashing the state legislators for not passing it,” he said. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick of Manhattan, who came out as a lesbian in 1971, is taking a patient, and forgiving, view of the governor’s lobbying tactics. “I wouldn’t measure the effectiveness by whether we have a total victory in the next five weeks,” she said in an interview. “I will leave it to the governor and his very extensive operation to figure out.”
Joining the mayor in Albany on Monday was openly gay City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. On her right hand, she wears a ring her partner gave her on their first anniversary. Over the weekend, The Observer asked Ms. Quinn what would happen if Mr. Cuomo brought the legislation forward prematurely and it was voted down, as it was in 2009.
“Well, it’s not going to happen,” she said flatly. So, what will she would do when the legislation passes? “It’s too difficult to plan before it happens,” she said, smiling. “I’ve allowed my mind to do that at times and it’s much too disappointing then when it doesn’t happen, so I actively do not let myself do that.”