It was bad enough when the sworn enemies of legalizing gay marriage in New York were making things miserable: Troglodytic Brooklyn state senator Marty Golden, declaring that he was standing up for “normalcy,” had introduced a bill that would void same-sex weddings from other states. Retrograde state Conservative Party chairman Mike Long threatened to punish any yes voters by withholding his party’s often crucial endorsement. But then even Mike Bloomberg, who for once appeared to be firmly on the same page as Andrew Cuomo, was mucking things up, calling for a vote in the State Legislature even if a winning majority wasn’t locked down in advance—a direct contradiction of the strategy Cuomo had been carefully nurturing for months. And some State Senate Democrats, among the most reliable pro-marriage pols, seemed to be feeding the negative momentum, believing that if legalization finally passes, they’d lose an issue and a source of campaign cash.
The governor’s camp was furious. But it wasn’t rattled. Cuomo is nothing if not methodical and obsessed with control of the process. Months ago, he strongly encouraged the creation of a coalition of rivalrous gay-advocacy groups—the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry, and Marriage Equality New York—and suggested it hire one of Cuomo’s longtime strategists, Jennifer Cunningham, to manage the $1 million ground game. Cuomo assigned one of his top aides, Steve Cohen, to be a direct line to the governor; Cohen has engaged in, and resolved, heated arguments with the gay groups over strategy. One result is that the coalition has stayed impressively, relentlessly on message all spring, as has Cuomo, who has toured the state talking up same-sex marriage as one of his top-three priorities.
It’s a stark contrast to 2009, when Governor David Paterson rushed to try to legalize gay marriage and was rewarded with a boost from gay and liberal voters, who were among the very few constituencies that hadn’t deserted him. But the bill was a long shot even before a coup eviscerated the State Senate’s Democratic majority and went down to a resounding 38-24 defeat. This time, when the wave of problems hit in late May, Cuomo’s machinery snapped swiftly into action: To counter criticism by some non-coalition activists that the governor was dragging his feet, word was leaked that Cuomo had called and lobbied upstate senator Greg Ball, one of the few Republicans in play. The latest in a series of celebrity pro-marriage videos was released, this one featuring white, nonthreatening NBA star Steve Nash. Dozens of labor-union leaders rallied on the steps of City Hall. And pro-legalization phone banks targeted the districts of two city Democrats, Joe Addabbo and Shirley Huntley, who voted no two years ago but seem open to changing their minds. “Last week sucked,” one gay leader says. “But this week we reversed the momentum.”
Polls consistently show public support for legalization at an all-time high; big-money national Republican donors have been recruited to back state GOP elected officials who vote the right way; Cuomo remains wildly popular. So things are different this time, right? Well, except for the crucial, implacable political math: The gay-marriage team remains six votes short. Not a single fence-sitter has declared in favor of gay marriage. The legislative session ends June 20, and this game will go down to the wire. In the old Albany, that would have meant something very familiar: two politicians behind closed doors seeing if they can cut a last-minute deal. “All that our groups can do is create conditions on the ground that make the deal doable,” one gay politico says. “I can pledge to support the Republicans who vote the right way. But I’m not brokering the deal. At the end of the day, it all comes down to Dean Skelos and Cuomo. That’s the hardest part.”
Cuomo, however, believes he’s radically shifted the Albany power dynamic and weakened the role of the legislative leaders, Democrat Shelly Silver in the Assembly and Skelos, the leader of the State Senate Republican majority. Cuomo’s theory, deployed successfully during state-budget negotiations, was that the leaders of the Assembly and the Senate would follow their rank and file if Cuomo built support in key districts around the state. “In boxing, the old expression was ‘You go to the body and the head will follow,’ ” a Cuomo insider says. “That’s true in politics as well. You build the consensus from the ground up.” So the governor and the gay-marriage coalition have staged an impressive field operation, directing thousands of constituent postcards, e-mails, and calls at supposedly persuadable legislators. Cuomo’s forces are also trying to raise the comfort level by showing how gay marriage polls favorably in individual districts and by suggesting that any Republican who loses the Conservative Party endorsement might pick up votes on the Independence Party line. Yet the issue remains a tough sell, in part because legislators know that polls also show gay marriage is a middling priority for New York voters. The other, even bigger hurdle is that legislators in both parties are pathologically risk-averse. “We don’t know of a legislator in the United States who’s lost a seat because of voting for gay marriage,” a New York Democratic strategist says. “But these guys have no balls and very little courage to stand up for what they know is right.” So Cuomo has talked up his support in broad terms instead of publicly pressuring individual pols.
The endgame, however, will employ a heavier hand. If the governor does need to cut a deal with Skelos, he has considerable leverage: The Long Island Republican is Senate majority leader by all of one seat, in a state where demographic trends and legally required redistricting pose an existential threat to his party. Perhaps Cuomo could find ways to help Skelos stay in power. But that would only be a last resort. A Cuomo insider says the first appeal will be to individual senators, who will be told that gay campaign money can be with them or against them. “If it gets to be a week after Memorial Day and we’re still short, you’re really going to see that kind of heavy politics,” the governor’s associate says. “That’s the only way this gets done.”
Gay political leaders claim they’re confident Cuomo isn’t simply posturing to buff his progressive credentials, and that he won’t sell them out by using marriage as a bargaining chip to gain, say, an ethics-reform bill or rent regulations. Yet that won’t keep them from growing nervous as the next three weeks tick away. The governor is routinely caricatured as a cold-blooded calculator. That’s true as far as it goes. But he has made gay marriage personal by investing his own political capital. And this is a man who hates to lose.