On June 19, 2007, the New York State Assembly passed a bill to legalize gay marriage after a three-hour floor debate that ranged from apocalyptic to heart-wrenching. “We are witnessing the twilight of our civilization,” warned Bronx lawmaker Michael Benjamin. Teresa Sayward, an upstate Republican assemblywoman, told a story about how she came to accept her gay son’s wish to live a normal life that left Assembly staffers in tears. “Let’s search our hearts tonight and do the right thing,” she urged.
Ultimately, the bill passed, 85 to 61, making it the second time that a legislative body in America had approved such a law. But when it came to the State Senate, which at the time was controlled by Republicans, the longtime majority leader, Joseph Bruno, didn’t bring it up for a vote. “We’re not going to spend hours debating an issue that, you know, is not going to be of consequence,” he said. Bruno’s not anti-gay, but enough of his members were against it that he didn’t feel the need to go out on a limb.
The Republican Senate’s refusal to bring same-sex marriage to the floor two years ago set the stage for the very peculiar politics that are today paralyzing New York government. The finish line is tantalizingly close but impossible to cross.
Democrats have a two-to-one advantage in New York, but the legacy of partisan redistricting helped keep the Senate Republican for all but one year since 1939. However, with Eliot Spitzer’s landslide, and the national mood tilting liberal, many Democrats saw an opportunity to grab it.
In 2007, after Bruno refused to take up the measure, the Gill Action Fund, arguably the most powerful gay-rights group in America, decided to intervene. The fund, started by Colorado software mogul Tim Gill in 2005, had turned the art of flipping legislatures into a science. In states with narrowly divided statehouses like Iowa, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Oregon, it was able to help surgically remove threats of gay-marriage bans and build momentum behind same-sex marriage laws and other gay-rights legislation, by injecting millions of dollars from a vast network of donors into select races. The targets of Gill’s money often didn’t realize they were in the crosshairs until they were voted out of office.
Gill’s political director, Bill Smith, a former Karl Rove associate, began working with the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state’s long-standing gay-rights lobbying group, led by former labor operative Alan Van Capelle. They came up with a plan to help the Democrats take the Senate and advance a gay-marriage bill in 2009.
Neither Gill nor the Pride Agenda are expressly partisan. Sayward and two other Assembly Republicans who had voted for the marriage bill in 2007 were flooded with out-of-state, Gill-directed donations, and got reelected in 2008. Yet Democratic control seemed a prerequisite to pass same-sex marriage.
In the spring of 2008, Gill and the Pride Agenda began hatching an Albany plan. In March, Spitzer—who’d promised to clean house, take the Senate, and press for gay marriage—was forced to leave office in humiliation. But his replacement, David Paterson, had supported gay marriage since 1994. Also, his powerful chief of staff, Charles O’Byrne, was gay.
By late summer, they decided to pour $1 million into defeating several vulnerable Republicans, especially Serphin Maltese in Queens and Caesar Trunzo in Long Island. Still, before the checks were mailed, the Gillites and the Pride Agenda needed reassurance. The Senate’s Democratic leader, Malcolm Smith, a small-time real-estate developer from Queens, had risen to power under the wing of former congressman Floyd Flake, a minister and staunch opponent of gay marriage. In October 2006, days after Smith was elected minority leader, he had broken with Flake over this issue. This fulfilled a promise he’d made to Tom Duane, the gay Manhattan senator. Smith, a black moderate, had edged out other contenders in large part thanks to Duane’s endorsement. “It was a progressive imprimatur,” says Duane.
In fall 2008 rumors were circulating that Senator Jeff Klein was conspiring to overthrow Smith. The Gillites met with top Democrats, and, according to a senator present, wanted Smith to agree to bring the marriage bill to the floor in 2009, in exchange for their support. Smith, says a source at the meeting, slammed his hand on the table: “Absolutely. It’s done.” They also wanted assurances that Smith had the party’s confidence. (A Gill aide denied holding any meeting to pressure the Democrats.)
In November, Democrats picked up two seats, electing Brian Foley in Long Island and Joseph Addabbo Jr. in Queens (both of whom were publicly undecided on gay marriage) and entered the year with a 32-to-30 majority. Smith became majority leader. Democrats say Gill’s money probably put them over the top.