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Righteous Elbows

In state’s gay-marriage push, the limits to playing nice.

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Governor Cuomo has set his sights on getting same-sex marriage passed by the end of the legislative session in June. And for the first time, four top advocacy groups have united under one banner for a final push. Together they’re signaling: This is it.

Why all the confidence? Because the landscape has shifted so favorably since December 2009, when a weak David Paterson led the charge, the gay groups were fractured, and a marriage bill failed in the State Senate 24-38. This time around, Cuomo enjoys a 73 percent favorability rating and political capital to spare. A record 58 percent of New Yorkers now support gay marriage. By that last measure alone, the bill should sail through, carried along by the virtue of won-over hearts and minds. It would be a beautiful thing.

But this is Albany, where getting things done is never pretty. A ­marriage-equality bill is still six votes short in the Senate, and though four senators who previously voted “no” have indicated their votes may now be up for grabs, that still leaves the tally two votes short—at least one of which will need to be Republican. The united gay groups say they are soliciting some fifteen senators, and they’re making it personal. “I’m going to talk to anybody about this issue, even if they’re down as a no,” says Cathy Marino-Thomas, board president of Marriage Equality New York, who believes she can get holdouts to see “that marriage is a right for my family.”

As a volunteer for the Empire State Pride Agenda, I’ve tried that approach, spending a sweltering day knocking on doors in Bellerose, Queens, last summer. After several hours’ work by six canvassers, we found only a dozen or so people willing to sign our marriage pledge. As I walked by a public-school campus named for then-Republican state senator Frank Padavan (a gay foe), I remember thinking we were on a hopeless quest.

So it’s a fortunate thing that even as gay people across the state are working on hearts and minds, the advocacy groups and the governor have other tools at hand. Cuomo, for example, can offer carrots on hot-button issues like rent regulation and property-tax caps. “Federally, what did Lyndon Johnson do?,” noted one gay leader. “[He said] ‘We’ll give you your federal money. You give us civil rights.’ That’s how politics works.” And then there are the sticks. If marriage passes, the wealthy gay-rights groups can lay off State Senate Republicans, instead of aiming to pick them off one by one, as they’ve been doing—as they did to Padavan, who was bounced last November. They might even support GOP senators who vote their way. In March, the Human Rights Campaign hosted a benefit for Maine’s Susan Collins to reward her for her role in repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“This is a vote that will be beneficial for Republicans,” HRC’s Brian Ellner emphasized. A majority of New Yorkers may now believe in the universal right to marry, but making that reality may come down to a select few not wanting to lose their jobs.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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