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.
Victory in hand, the Gillites started working on their real goal. After O’Byrne, the gay former Jesuit priest, was forced out of his public role in a tax scandal in October 2008, he began advising Gill behind the scenes.
Lobbyist Patricia Lynch, a ferociously competitive fixer, was brought onboard also. She’d just come off losing the congestion-pricing effort because she couldn’t convince enough outer-borough Democrats to swallow new tolls. This was her chance to win something just as big—if not bigger. Lynch’s firm was paid $10,000 a month for the contract. And they set to work.
Albany, though, is a culture of relentless opportunism. Just after the successful election, four Democrats rebelled against Smith. One of them was Rubén Díaz Sr., a Pentecostal Puerto Rican from the Bronx and passionate opponent of gay marriage. Gay money had helped the Democrats win, but that didn’t mean all Democrats were willing to do its bidding. By the first week of January of this year, Smith had made a deal with Díaz to keep his power. A source familiar with the discussions says Smith and Díaz came to an understanding that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be voted on in 2009.
Smith’s public position would be that they needed 32 committed votes before he’d let it go to the floor. As 2009 dawned, Van Capelle at the Pride Agenda started methodically assembling those 32. With the issue apparently on the back burner for the session, few Democrats had taken a position against it. Ten or so were officially undecided. From the point of view of the same-sex marriage advocates, the quiet was an advantage. They could wage a stealth campaign.
But then Paterson decided it had to happen—immediately. Reeling from his disastrous handling of Caroline Kennedy’s Senate bid, budget protests, and disarray within his offices, Paterson had seen his job-approval rating crumble to 19 percent. The governor was searching for a comeback, and gay marriage was going to help him get there.
When they heard about Paterson’s updated schedule for their carefully wrought plans, Duane, Van Capelle, and O’Byrne were all taken by surprise. It meant making sure Duane and Van Capelle had garnered the votes by June 22, the final day of session. “They didn’t think the groundwork was laid.” says an insider. The governor, however, was convinced that after victories in Iowa and Vermont, they needed to capitalize on the national momentum. Paterson announced the bill from his midtown office on April 16. “We have a crisis of leadership” he declared. “We’re going to fill that vacuum today.” Smith didn’t attend the press conference.
On April 28, the Pride Agenda filled the Convention Center next to the state capitol with supporters and balloons for its annual rally. (“It’s like a Madonna concert!” said Van Capelle.) Paterson got a standing ovation.
On May 12, the Assembly passed the bill for the second time. The tally was heartening to Lynch. The yes votes increased to 89; two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent switched.
The night of the vote, the bill’s sponsor, Danny O’Donnell, brother of Rosie O’Donnell, invited lawmakers to the 74 State Hotel’s mahogany-and-brass bar to celebrate his engagement to John Banta, the director of special events for the Metropolitan Opera. Harlem assemblyman Keith Wright, dressed in basketball shorts, greeted O’Donnell with a hug: “I don’t dance with boys, but I’ll dance with you,” Wright cracked.
In the middle of the room sat a gloomy pack of Senate Democrats who happened by after a Senate alumni dinner. Lucky for them, there was an open bar. But they didn’t feel so lucky thinking about the marriage bill coming due. Foley, whom Gill had helped elect, preferred civil unions. “It’s all about 2010,” he said that night. The advocates “want to go for the golden crown. It would imperil the majority.”
Assembly Democrats had the luxury of a 109-to-41 advantage. A quarter of the conference voted against marriage, and it still passed. At the party, Van Capelle, in his Hugo Boss suit and polka-dot tie, asked several of the senators for their help on the bill. He apparently got a tepid response. “I’m not taking responsibility for this failure,” one of the senators recalls thinking.
The Senate bill had only nineteen sponsors—all Democrats. The one hint of GOP support came from Jim Alesi, a laundry entrepreneur from Rochester, who suggested to a newspaper that he might be a yes, then later said he was undecided.
At least seven Democrats were opposed. One was Ruth Hassell-Thompson, an African-American whose mother and sister are Baptist ministers; she represents a racially gerrymandered district that snakes from Mount Vernon in Westchester down around the Bronx Zoo. She “supported giving gay couples equal rights but had a real problem with the word marriage,” says a colleague. Another was George Onorato, 80, a retired bricklaying union official, who insisted his district, which includes Astoria and Long Island City, did not want gay marriage. Except that these days it’s become pretty gay. “He’s out of touch. He’s representing the community that existed 30 years ago,” says a colleague.
Lynch believed she needed to clinch at least 29 Democratic votes, with the assumption that there were at least two or three Republicans she could persuade to come along. It was going to be hard going convincing even the sympathetic ones that it was in their interest to join up. Long Island GOP senator John Flanagan was touched by Sayward’s plea—“She’s a classy lady. When I listen to someone like her, it really makes me think”—but, in mid-May, he wasn’t sure he could go along with more than civil unions. “I think marriage should be between a man and a woman. That’s the way I grew up.”
Meanwhile, an organized opposition was taking root. Starting in mid-May, the National Organization for Marriage, founded by pundit Maggie Gallagher, spent $600,000 on, among other things, more than 2 million robo-calls, primarily to Republicans and independents. “The amount of political pressure it takes the Legislature to do something is a lot more than getting it to do nothing,” she said. “I have to generate enough public pressure to get politicians to do nothing. How hard should that be?” Near the end of that month, a poll came out showing a slight drop in support for gay marriage; still, half of New Yorkers approved.
The battle was joined. Lynch approved ad campaigns upstate. One featured a mother talking over plaintive piano about her wish for her son to have the same rights as his sister: “Luke has goals of settling down with someone, and I want him to be able to do that.” The ads, produced by Josh Isay and Jennifer Cunningham, weren’t intended to change minds but to give lawmakers cover. The polling data showed that voters responded better to gentler messages that depicted families instead of same-sex couples.
It was a departure from the losing anti–Proposition 8 campaign in California, which had tried to shame voters with ads that featured Mormon missionaries ransacking the home of a gay couple, tearing up their marriage license. Lynch was also careful to avoid talking about it as “civil rights,” since many black lawmakers found that to be apples and oranges. They also used the phrase “civil marriage” to distinguish state recognition from a religious sacrament.
The advocates thought they had all spring to wage a stealth campaign. Then Paterson decided it needed to happen— immediately.
While all this was going on in public, Lynch and the Pride Agenda were wondering what Smith was up to. “He never lobbied anybody, and when you want something from people, you have to ask,” says one sponsor on the bill.
In the Assembly, O’Donnell had cajoled, needled, commiserated, reasoned, flirted, and swelled with conviction. But with Smith—apparently not wanting to upset his tenuous hold on power—not working the room, that left Duane. But he wasn’t as temperamentally suited to the task.
In his decade as a senator, Duane has matured into the role of elder gay statesmen. But he wasn’t chummy with many colleagues. “The culture of the Legislature—I can’t engage in it. It’s not for me,” he said.
Still, he worked hard. He put in a call to the Washington-based gay-rights group the Human Rights Campaign and asked them to hire Steven Boggess, a lobbyist who was Bruno’s longtime chief of staff. (Bruno, who’d left the Senate, declared his support for gay marriage earlier this month.) In late May, Duane said, “I don’t have a lot of noes. I have a lot of I-don’t-think-I-cans. I know people who really haven’t made up their minds, and they’re struggling with it.” But Duane, a Chelsea liberal, wasn’t going to have much effect on Senators Onorato or Hassell-Thompson or Shirley Huntley—71, black, and from Queens.
To supplement Duane’s efforts, O’Donnell went ahead with his idea of a “buddy system,” in which Assembly members would be paired with resistant senators in their districts. Meanwhile, Lynch targeted four Democrats she felt could be persuaded intellectually, by appealing to their sense of political calculus: David Valesky from Syracuse, North Country dairy farmer Darrel Aubertine, Bill Stachowski from Buffalo, and Foley, who’d been helped by the Gill funds. All four are Catholic and expressed religious reservations about gay marriage and were worried how it would play in their districts. The theory was that they needed three of those four to win.
Then they unleashed the celebrities: Maya Angelou, Cynthia Nixon, and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose son is openly gay, made calls to legislators. (Huntley told the Times she was shocked to hear from Angelou but wouldn’t back the bill even for “a million dollars, tax free.”) Kirsten Gillibrand was asked to talk to Aubertine and Valesky. Mayor Bloomberg volunteered to come to Albany and work over the Republicans, but Michael Avella, a lobbyist hired by the Log Cabin Republicans, persuaded him to stick to the phone. Christine Quinn, the lesbian City Council speaker, lobbied fellow Irish Catholic Flanagan (“They’ve said we’ll do everything we can to help you,” he says. “They haven’t said we’re going to get you if you don’t support it.”) After meeting with Smith, Quinn reported that “he’s really going to try to do it.”
As June approached, Lynch and Van Capelle started projecting confidence to the press. On May 31, Duane called a meeting with Lynch, O’Donnell, and other supporters in his Chelsea office, where he ranked the targeted senators by their level of support from one (a definite yes) to five (a die-hard no). The “two” column—populated by those who gave non-public personal assurances—at least, was looking up.
In front of the cameras on June 1, Duane declared, “There are enough votes, it’s coming to the floor, it’s passing.” There was an element of bluff to this. Three days later, Smith told an Albany news station that he didn’t see it locked up. He added that he wasn’t pushing his colleagues. “My members know where I am at on this. There is no reason for me to be actively working behind the scenes,” he said.
“How can he be on our side if he’s saying ‘I’m not working for it?’ ” Lynch asked her allies. Smith told them not to worry. “I need to do a public dance. I have to manage Díaz” he said, according to a source. For months, the Gill people had stood by Smith and dismissed his inconsistencies. Headed into the final weeks of session, they realized they wouldn’t know for sure if Smith had betrayed them until it was too late.
On the morning of June 8, Lynch’s operation was hours away from embarking on an eleventh-hour blitz. The plan was to have Bloomberg, Andrew Cuomo, and Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi ratchet up the pressure on the remaining holdouts.
When she heard that two Democrats had flipped and would be voting with Senate Republicans, Lynch says her instincts told her to do nothing. Van Capelle went back to his hotel room and cried. Lynch called him, and they decided to shut down the lobbying until they figured out which side would prevail.
That night, a frazzled Duane went back to his hotel room and didn’t return to the capitol the next day. On his way, he bumped into one of the turncoats, Pedro Espada Jr., who told him not to worry—he would try to move his bill. “That’s great. Keep me posted,” Duane recalled replying. He would get another call that week from a Republican proposing he join them, and GOP leader Dean Skelos was seen walking out of Duane’s office that week. “We were worried that Duane was willing to sell [out] the conference for one vote,” says one Democrat. But Republicans had also reached out to Díaz, who rebuffed them. They didn’t care who they reeled in; they were just trying to ensure the coup would stick. Duane said he never considered flipping.
Both sides agree that if gay marriage were actually voted on today, it could very well pass. The political pressure on Democrats from a gay community that was instrumental in their takeover would be intense. Two to four yes votes on the Republican side—most likely coming from Alesi and Andrew Lanza of Staten Island—could put it over the top.
But, as of press time, it’s not clear that the session will be extended, letting the measure come to a vote. If it does, it may well be the Republicans who get it there. They have certain partisan advantages for seeing it go to the floor: a vote either way for many Democrats in swing districts could help the GOP win back their seats. Which is why some activists say they are more worried about what will happen if the Democrats regain power—ironic, since Gill fought so hard to put them there.
Last week, the Senate Democrats elected John Sampson, a low-key Brooklyn lawyer, conference leader. This leaves Smith’s power uncertain, and Sampson doesn’t necessarily consider himself bound by the same promises. “Sampson’s always been lukewarm on this issue. I don’t know if he will grasp that his agenda has to shift,” says one prominent Democrat close to the Senate leadership.
The gay-marriage advocates assumed they could make the law a reality in New York with $1 million and a handshake. Today, their donors are upset and the advocates are frustrated. Albany lives by its own rules. As one Gill aide put it, “It’s the most dysfunctional government in the country. It’s an insane system.”