Eight to Ten Weeks: Cuomo huddle signals all-out marriage drive aimed at spring

Author: Paul Schindler
Publication: Gay City News
Publication Date: March 16th, 2011

Read the story at Gay City News.

A March 9 meeting that Governor Andrew Cuomo convened with nine leaders in the effort to enact a marriage equality law this year in New York is getting very positive reviews from several participants who spoke to Gay City News, both on the record and on background.

“I’ve been to lots of meetings where presidents or governors call people in to say that they’re with them, and this one was really extraordinary,” said Richard Socarides, the executive director of Equality Matters, a new LGBT-focused effort of the progressive watchdog Media Matters. During the Clinton administration, Socarides, an attorney, was the White House liaison to the LGBT community.

“What was clear to me from the meeting is that the governor is very committed to this,” Socarides continued. “He is prepared to do what it takes to get it done. He’s going to work on it and his team is going to work on it as soon as they get the budget done.”

Acknowledging that Cuomo did not put it in so many words, Socarides said if the budget is completed on or close to the April 1 deadline, with both Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats reasonably content about that process, “I think he will turn to this, and it will be his top priority.”

What Socarides and others described was nothing less than a full-tilt effort, led by a popular new governor, to win marriage equality before the Legislature adjourns in June. At a LGBT Community Center forum on March 10, which included Socarides and three other participants in the Albany meeting, Freedom to Marry executive director Evan Wolfson, who first became involved in marriage litigation in the mid-1990s in Hawaii, said the time is now for the community to mobilize. “We have eight to ten weeks to get this done,” he said.

Socarides was not alone in his glowing assessment.

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

A third participant, who did not wish to be identified, said, “The governor is really, really focused on this. He is putting the smartest people in his office on it.”

Saying they had seen the governor in action over a number of years, this source said, “I’ve only ever seen him this excited about something a handful of times.” According to that individual, the March 9 meeting, held in the State Capitol Building in Albany, came at the behest of Cuomo.

In addition to Socarides, Wolfson, and Levi, those representing the lesbian and gay community at the meeting included three elected officials — Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell and Senator Tom Duane, both out gay Manhattan Democrats who are the lead sponsors of the marriage bill, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

LGBT advocacy groups were represented by the Pride Agenda’s Levi, Freedom to Marry’s Wolfson, and Brian Ellner, who heads up the New York marriage effort at the Human Rights Campaign. Also on hand were Mike Avella, a GOP lobbyist who has represented the Log Cabin Republicans on this issue and who Socarides said was also there on behalf of the Gill Action Fund, the Colorado-based LGBT political group founded by software entrepreneur Tim Gill, and Kevin Finnegan, the political director at Service Employees International Union Local 1199, one of the state’s most powerful labor organizations. Finnegan worked for Cuomo in his 2002 gubernatorial bid.

Two other invited participants were unable to attend — Jeff Cook, the state Log Cabin Republicans’ legislative advisor, and Emily Giske, a government affairs specialist at Bolton-St. Johns who has served as a state Democratic Party vice-chair.

A source told Gay City News that one of the key issues discussed was just how proactive the governor’s team should be in coordinating the effort. There was initial resistance to the idea of stepping on legislative prerogatives, but then Socarides — though not by his own account, in speaking to Gay City News — made a persuasive case that in the absence of a quarterback in the executive branch on an issue of this significance, there is danger that the governor’s commitment might not be effectively represented.

Steven Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who is secretary to the governor, which puts him in one of the most powerful positions in Cuomo’s inner circle, will play that role — something that provides a compelling objective standard to back up the characterizations of the meeting Socarides and others provided.

In addition to Cohen, others on Cuomo’s staff at the meeting — which ran more than 90 minutes, with the governor in attendance for just over an hour — were his counsel, Mylan Denerstein, Alphonso David, the out gay deputy secretary for civil rights who earlier in his career was an attorney at Lambda Legal, and community liaison Erik Bottcher, who formerly held this same post in Quinn’s office.

The marriage measure has been approved three times since 2007 by the heavily Democratic Assembly. The Senate, now controlled 32-30 by Republicans, rejected the marriage equality measure by a 38-24 vote in December 2009, when the Democrats held a narrow margin. Though all 30 Republicans in the Senate at that time voted no, the GOP majority leader, Dean Skelos of Long Island, last fall told the Log Cabin Republicans he would bring the bill before his conference and expected they would approve another floor debate and vote.

There are now 26 confirmed public votes in favor of marriage equality, all of them Democrats. Given the fervent opposition of Bronx Democrat Ruben Diaz and the two-vote Democratic deficit, advocates must find at least three Republican votes to achieve victory, and may well need more than that.

On the Democratic side, Shirley Huntley and Joseph Addabbo of Queens and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn all voted no last time.

John Sampson, the Brooklyn Democrat who is the Senate minority leader, has repeatedly assured advocates he could bring Huntley around if her vote were the deciding factor. Last year, however, she faced the unified opposition of the LGBT community during a primary challenge she easily surmounted. Addabbo, whose first campaign for the Senate in 2008 was run by a staff member on loan from Duane, outraged the Chelsea senator and many activists when he cast his no vote in 2009. Some activists believed Kruger could be persuaded to change his vote, but as this story goes to publication there is breaking news that he will surrender on March 10 on federal corruption charges; whether he will stay in his seat as he fights to stay out of jail is unknown.

Last fall, Gregory T. Angelo, chair of the Log Cabin Republicans of New York, told Gay City News that if the Democrats produce 26 or 27 votes, he was comfortable his party could deliver the five or six needed for passage. At the March 9 meeting, participants agreed that playbooks would be assembled on potential Republican votes, laying out the best approaches — through business leaders, union officials, clergy, for example — for turning that senator from a no to a yes.

“This is the way a legislative campaign is done,” one participant told Gay City News. “It’s never been smart before. And Andrew wants to make this smart.”

Levi’s team at the Pride Agenda and Ellner’s at the Human Rights Campaign will share responsibilities as point people to coordinate with the governor’s office on the progress of field efforts across the state to bring out grassroots pressure on Republican senators.

The Pride Agenda will be the focal point for information about mobilizing allies among local elected officials and business, labor, and religious leaders in the push. Those meeting with the governor are apparently still working out details on the coordination of media and messaging efforts for the spring campaign.

Recent public opinion polls — which have uniformly put support for the issue above 55 percent statewide, and at 60 percent or better, not only in New York City, but also on Long Island and the suburbs north of the city — will certainly be a plus, with those inclined to vote no surely weighing whether the political tides are moving strongly against them.

In the effort to mobilize people on the ground statewide between now and May — acknowledging that “the votes are not there now,” Socarides termed grassroots efforts “crucial” — the governor’s team caused itself at least some temporary problems by failing to include in the meeting a representative of Marriage Equality New York (MENY), a volunteer group active on the issue for a dozen years, or newer organizations that have sprung up more recently.

Upon learning of the meeting the evening before it took place, Cathy Marino-Thomas, MENY’s communications director, said, “There they go again forgetting the grassroots, which they will need.” Told of the assessment from the meeting that grassroots efforts would be “crucial” going forward, she said, “If it’s so crucial, why didn’t they invite the grassroots to the table?”

Recalling the role MENY and another volunteer group, Queer Rising, played in last year’s special election when José Peralta, a pro-marriage Queens Democrat, defeated former Senator Hiram Monserrate, expelled after a domestic violence conviction, Marino-Thomas speculated about a potential vacancy in Kruger’s Brooklyn district

“Who will go out to the district to work to get this done?,” she asked.

Despite her pique — and “confusion” — over the snub of grassroots representatives, Marino-Thomas said, “I don’t want to be the person who gets in the way here. I want to make sure we get this passed.”

Last month MENY mobilized 300 activists to Albany, successfully meeting with senators or their representatives from 58 of the 62 offices. MENY and the Human Rights Campaign are now working to pull more activists up to Albany for the Pride Agenda’s Equality & Justice lobby day on May 9 (see prideagenda.org or tinyurl.com/4urvpal).

In a statement issued shortly after the meeting, the governor said, “Today’s meeting was one in a series of many meetings to discuss a marriage equality bill... I look forward to working with lawmakers and stakeholders to make sure that New York joins the growing number of states that allow the freedom to marry for all couples.”

Many others at the meeting declined on the record comment, though in advance of the gathering, Mark Furnish, a Duane spokesman, in an email message, wrote, “Senator Duane is very pleased that Governor Cuomo has called this meeting. He is looking forward to working with everyone together to make marriage equality a reality in New York.”