Legislators Say 2011 Gay Marriage Campaign Has Been A Very Different Ride From 2009

For state Senator Tom Duane of Manhattan, who steered efforts in 2009 to get same-sex marriage passed in New York only to see the measure doomed, it’s almost too good to be true how close New York State is to getting gay marriage legalized this week. 

“I have post-traumatic trust disorder,” said Duane with a smile.

But Duane said the same-sex marriage campaign in 2011 has been different from the 2009 efforts for several reasons. He’s out of the spotlight this time around, and in his place is a governor whom Democratic senators and gay rights activists say has the clout and likability to get the votes to pass the bill. Duane said Andrew Cuomo has been able to connect with individual senators in a way that his predecessor, David Paterson, never could.

“It’s not just stemming from the fact that he’s popular or how he wields his power,” said Duane. “I think there is a heart and soul that the governor has.”

In 2009, in contrast, Duane said there was deep anger between Paterson and the senators. Paterson kept calling legislators back into session, and the tug of war frustrated senators who just wanted to be home with their families. 

“You know the legislature at that time had a bad relationship with then-Governor Paterson,” said Duane. “There was some resentment. The budget kept getting passed by continuing resolution, which made senators angry.”

Duane said he was surprised when Paterson chose to push gay marriage to a vote during a time of so much turmoil in the Senate. 

Duane had publicly stated for days leading up to the final vote in 2009 that he had the votes to pass the legislation. The measure was defeated by 38to 24, after senators Duane said had personally promised him to vote yes changed their minds at the last minute. He said now, it’s a lot harder to burn Cuomo than it might have been to burn him.

Cuomo vowed early in his term that one of his primary goals was to see same-sex marriage legalized in New York. He brought on board his longtime strategist Jennifer Cunningham to coordinate efforts to lobby individual senators. Duane said he is not aware of any concessions or deals the governor has had to make in getting people to get yes votes. He believes the governor has relied simply on his persuasion skills.

Gay rights advocates and other legislators point out that 2009 was a particularly troubling time in the Senate—acrimony and distrust among senators was probably at or near its highest. In the summer, two Democratic senators—Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada -- staged a power coup and defected to the Republican side. 

By December 2009, when the gay marriage bill came up for a vote, legislators say there was still tremendous bitterness.

“Sometimes there were moments when there was sunshine and people did want to make others on the other side of the aisle happy,” said Duane, “but a lot of the time it was about making sure that the other side was miserable.”

Longtime Democratic strategist Ethan Geto said better coordination among advocacy groups has also helped campaign efforts in 2011. In 2009, the Empire State Pride Agenda played the most prominent role as an organization in drumming up support for the bill. This year, a broader coalition called New Yorkers United for Marriage teamed up the Empire State Pride Agenda with other organizations, including Freedom to Marry, Marriage Equality New York, Log Cabin Republicans and Human Rights Campaign. Human Rights Campaign is the largest civil rights organization in the country that focuses on LGBT issues.

In 2009, the Pride Agenda and Human Rights Campaign did not have a close and collaborative relationship. In the last couple of months, the coalition has won support from a star-studded cast of celebrities, including Chelsea Clinton, Cynthia Nixon and New York Rangers player Sean Avery. 

Even state senator Ruben Diaz—a longtime staunch opponent of gay marriage due to personal religious reasons -- has admitted the momentum this year makes passage seem highly likely, though he notes he is still actively campaigning against it with his Republican colleagues. 

“Very proud I’m going to go into history being the only Democrat against gay marriage in the senate,” said Diaz.

Because Cuomo has long said he will not introduce a same-sex marriage bill without the votes, Diaz said Cuomo must have the votes to be sending out a bill now.

Finally, political strategists and legislators in favor of gay marriage say the political climate this year is simply more amenable to getting the legislation passed. With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the Obama administration’s refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and a Siena College poll showing 58 percent of New Yorkers are in favor of gay marriage, advocates say New York in 2011 is the right place and right time to get same-sex marriage legalized.