Cuomo Helps Groups Mobilize for Gay Marriage Bill

Author: Michael Barbaro
Publication: New York Times
Publication Date: April 19th, 2011

Read the full story at the New York Times 

Gay rights groups, which suffered the stinging defeat of a same-sex marriage bill in New York State in 2009, will publicly mount a new campaign for the legislation starting this week, relying on the popular Democratic governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, to overcome Republican resistance and their own history of poor coordination.

Under the supervision of the governor’s staff, the groups intend to raise more than $1 million for a media blitz, hire a powerful political consultant close to the Cuomo administration and deploy field organizers to the districts of more than a dozen key lawmakers to drum up support, according to interviews with those involved in the effort.

In contrast to their failed drive for a marriage bill two years ago, the advocates envision a short, disciplined and intense run-up to a vote in the State Legislature, raising the prospect that gay couples may be allowed to wed in New York by early summer.

Their overriding aim: avoid the mistakes and miscommunications of 2009, when those lobbying for same-sex marriage sent conflicting messages, misjudged the opposition and won far fewer votes than they had predicted. After passing in the Assembly, the bill was defeated in the Senate, 38 to 24.

Partly because of that defeat, the advocates are uneasy about making predictions this time, and have been meeting mainly in secret. But Mr. Cuomo, who has vowed a personal push to win passage of same-sex marriage this year, has instructed his staff members to oversee the campaign to ensure it runs smoothly.

In weekly meetings over the past four weeks, at the governor’s office in Manhattan, high-level aides to Mr. Cuomo have repeatedly pressed advocates to communicate to lawmakers and the public with one voice.

“If this gets done, it’s through coordination,” the governor’s top aide, Steve M. Cohen, has told the advocates, according to those who have participated in the Friday afternoon sessions.

To that end, four influential gay rights groups — the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry and Marriage Equality New York — will form a single organization called New Yorkers United for Marriage.

The coalition is hiring Jennifer Cunningham, a veteran labor and media strategist who is close to the governor and has advised his campaigns. Ms. Cunningham and her firm, SKD Knickerbocker, will oversee the coalition’s media campaign and political strategy.

The effort would most likely include television and radio advertisements. Depending on how the legislation fares, the groups could eventually unleash a flurry of campaign literature directed at individual lawmakers, those told of the discussions said.

Although the advocates proposed working with Ms. Cunningham, people briefed on the matter said the Cuomo administration later expressed support for the choice.

The groups intend to unveil the new coalition and consultant on Wednesday.

“Last time, there were lots of players, lots of organizations, lots of good will, but not the truly united effort that has come together to work hand in glove with the governor and legislative leaders,” said Evan Wolfson, the president of Freedom to Marry.

Two Democratic senators who voted against the bill in 2009 have since departed, replaced by supporters of the bill. Advocates now need to attract six more senators to ensure its passage. So far, they are focusing on about 15 lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, whose votes could prove pivotal.

They are expected to focus on three New York City Democrats who voted against the bill but are considered open to switching sides: Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., Shirley L. Huntley and Carl Kruger. Among Republicans, they are looking at about a dozen senators, including Gregory R. Ball of Putnam County, Andrew J. Lanza of Staten Island, and Mark Grisanti, James S. Alesi and Roy J. McDonald, who represent upstate districts.

As she did in 2009, Christine C. Quinn, a Cuomo ally and the City Council speaker, who is openly gay, has traveled to Albany to build support. In the end, those involved in the campaign said, it may fall to Mr. Cuomo to make the case to wavering senators.

Advocates are expressing growing optimism that Mr. Cuomo can steer a marriage bill through the Legislature. They point to his passage of an on-time budget that cut spending without provoking political warfare — a modern miracle, by Albany standards; the governor’s historically high approval ratings; and polling that shows, for the first time, that a solid majority of New Yorkers support legalizing same-sex marriage.

“We have an enormously popular governor committed to getting this done now, strong support from New Yorkers all around the state and a group of advocates who are highly coordinated,” said Brian Ellner, who is directing the Human Rights Campaign’s efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in New York.

Ross D. Levi, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said, “That is a terrific environment for this issue.”