Gay Marriage All Goes According to Andrew Cuomo’s Plan

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It all went according to plan. Oh, the two-week delay on a gay-marriage vote, the exact identities of the final Senate Republican “yes” voters — true, those frustrating twists and uncertainties weren’t pretty, and there were moments when the whole thing could have come crashing down. But to a remarkable degree, the same-sex marriage endgame unfolded just as Governor Andrew Cuomo had drawn it up months ago. And his "what-me-worry?" posture throughout the end-of-session mess was crucial in making it happen: Cuomo’s confidence game — his repeated public statements and private assurances to marriage advocates and legislative fence-sitters that legalization was inevitable, even when it wasn’t — created the climate for the last breakthrough today. Well, that and some good old-fashioned horse-trading.

Cuomo had outlined his big three legislative priorities last year, during his campaign for governor, and after pushing through a state budget in March he kept a tight focus on winning a property tax cap, tightening ethics rules, and passing gay marriage. Getting everything done required providing something for everyone: Upstate and suburban Republicans wanted the tax cap; city Democrats wanted rent regulations; and Cuomo, who believed in gay marriage in principle, also needed it politically to shore up his progressive credentials.

Just establishing the goals didn’t get them done, of course; Cuomo and his allies worked relentlessly to maintain the favorable momentum, from Cuomo’s approval-number-boosting roadshow to — pivotally, in the case of gay marriage — organizing a well-financed ground-game, run by his aide Steve Cohen and political consultant Jennifer Cunningham, that teamed with gay advocacy groups like Empire State Pride Agenda and the Human Rights Campaign to flood legislators with pro-marriage calls and mail. This paid off most spectacularly with the switch of Brooklyn Democrat Joe Addabbo from a “no” vote in 2009 to a “yes” this month, a necessary domino to bringing two other Dems and Republicans Jim Alesi and Roy McDonald on board.

But once Cuomo had established the fundamental architecture of the bargain, the rest was mere haggling: A shift in rent regulation numbers here, some significant loopholes in ethics rules there, plus a dash of extra legalese in the amendment to gay marriage. The new governor determined his strengths months ago, and pinpointed his colleagues' and opponents' weaknesses, and those things haven’t changed. He knew that Shelly Silver, the powerful Assembly speaker, needed to be able to claim improvements in protecting the tenants of rent-regulated apartments, but that otherwise Silver wouldn’t be the immovable object he’d been in the past. “How many times did Nancy Pelosi, when she was speaker of the house, tell Obama to go to hell?” a top New York Democrat asks. “Not often. It doesn’t really work that way. And in Albany, a Democratic speaker doesn’t really want trouble with a Democratic governor. A Republican governor, Pataki — yes, then the Democratic speaker is the counterforce. An immature, eccentric governor, Spitzer? Sure. A weak governor, Paterson? Shelly consumes a weak governor. But right now you have a popular Democratic governor. Shelly doesn’t want to start a fight of who is more popular and who has more sway with the Assembly.” Once Silver got some incremental improvements in tenant laws he was willing to play ball on the property tax cap, the priority for Republican senate majority leader Dean Skelos.

Which left the minor matter of gay marriage itself. The decisive votes needed to come from Skelos’s conference, which was split between two factions: A solid majority opposed to legalization who didn’t want to allow the vote to come to the floor, and a handful of undecideds who were fearful of being the 32nd “yes” that would put marriage over the top and expose them to the vengeance of the Conservative Party. Skelos, to the end, couldn’t make up his mind what he wanted to do. He could allow a vote and get the issue over with, thereby risking his party’s thin hold on the senate, or stall indefinitely, satisfying the bulk of his membership.

“The Republican leadership has promised (Conservative Party Chairman) Mike Long that it won’t put the thumb on individual legislators to decide it,” a GOP insider said mid-week. “So they have these tortured conferences where people are pretty anguished. Senators say, ‘I don’t want to be a bigot, but my church and my priest say I shouldn’t be doing this!’ A significant portion of the meeting the other day was venting at Alesi, especially, and McDonald, who they felt broke the proctocol.” Alesi, in particular, wallowed in the spotlight after declaring he’d vote yes, and angered his fellow Republicans by saying he was voting on principle while they resorted to craven political calculation. “In the meetings, they told him, ‘Nobody holds it against you that you’re in favor of this issue or that issue, but who are you to go out and indict the whole conference? You’re full of shit! You’re portraying my serious wrestling with this issue as some kind of cavalier political thing, and I take great offense to that!’”

All this pontificating took up many hours, and could have continued indefinitely. Cuomo knew from the beginning that Republicans would use questions about protecting religious institutions as a delaying tactic, and that he couldn't depend on Skelos to deliver the last votes. So Cuomo kept working on individual Republicans, and he strategically gave ground, until late Friday, when his last bit of concession on religious exemptions tipped the balance for Sen. Stephen Saland, who represents a district near Albany. Cuomo felt confident of Saland's vote a week ago, but knew he needed to give the senator slightly more room to justify the decision to the Republican conference and to his constituents.

"You’ve got a governor who from New York City who shouldn’t be wildly popular upstate, but he is," a Cuomo insider says. "So legislators take comfort in the fact that he’s out there so hard on this issue. You took a tough vote for David Paterson? Shame on you! You took a tough vote for Andrew Cuomo? God bless you!" The repeated, emphatic waving of campaign money by gay groups didn’t hurt, either. “It’s carrots and sticks. It’s music and champagne — and it’s strength,” a Cuomo intimate says. “It’s an orchestra, it’s a symphony, it’s all of this combined. It’s political skills. It’s 500 phone calls to individual senators. It’s birthday calls, it’s anniversary calls, it’s going to their district, it’s all last year campaigning with them.”

“Andrew has been masterful,” a political strategist says. “Whether health care or ethics or Medicaid reductions, they announce victory, stand with the partners in a room — and then they work out the details later.” So it was with gay marriage; it will be some time until all the fine print is digested, and perhaps the last round of maneuvering will open up the law to serious legal challenges, but Cuomo will worry about that another day. He's gotten the big win, and it will be very hard for anyone to turn back the clock. (A digression: Yes, Mike Bloomberg has been a longtime and aggressive supporter of gay marriage, but otherwise he and the city took a beating in Albany this session. From LIFO to the slashing of education funds to the meager improvements in rent regulations to the punting of pension reductions, Cuomo has recognized and exploited his political advantages over the mayor at every turn . The state’s new reduction in union benefits may have a ripple benefit for Bloomberg, but it’s a big maybe. And okay, Bloomberg did get an Albany win on livery cabs.)

For all his political victories — and for all the civil right-ness of New York finally joining the states that permit same-sex marriage — Cuomo is now at risk too: He got what he wanted this winter and spring in Albany, and now he owns the near-future of the state like no other governor in recent memory. If the broader economy turns around sufficiently, he’ll reap the benefits. If it doesn’t, Cuomo has a long, painful three years ahead of him. Whatever happens, in his first six months Andrew Cuomo has already established a permanent, enormous part of his legacy: He is the governor who made marriage for all a reality in New York.

Related: Marriage Equality Act Passed by State Senate
Trailblazing: A History of Gay Rights in New York