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I Have the Votes

Gov. Cuomo gets Legislature to pass historic same-sex marriage bill through force of will

by David King on June 29, 2011

On Friday (June 24), at a little past 10 PM, the New York State Legislature passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage in New York state. As the Senate finished its vote, the architect of the deal that saw four Republicans who were previously opposed to the bill vote for it—Gov. Andrew Cuomo— took to the Senate floor, gave a thumbs up, posed for pictures, and congratulated legislators.

It hadn’t been an easy road. Cuomo and donors made promises to support Republicans who voted in the affirmative, and for weeks Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos haggled with Cuomo over other legislation, and eventually with his own conference about whether to bring the bill to the floor. But that night, the vote seemed simple: Two previously undecided Republicans revealed themselves as supporters, only two other legislators spoke to support the bill, and then it was done. The cheering began, as chants of “USA, USA,USA,” thundered down from the viewing gallery above.

A more somber scene had taken place on the chamber floor in December 2009: The Senate took a vote on marriage and Gov. David Paterson rushed to the floor for photo ops. But in that case the bill had failed: every Republican voted against it, as did seven Democrats. Advocates had been sure they had secured the votes they needed on the Republican side. But when Joseph Addabo, a Democrat, voted no early on in the roll call, it set off a chain that saw other Democrats and Republicans switch their votes.

Nothing was left to chance this year under Cuomo’s Machiavellian gaze. Instead of letting advocates lead the charge—as Paterson did—Cuomo and his staff oversaw the effort and did extensive hand-holding with Republican legislators to ensure the outcome the governor wanted.

Cuomo had announced earlier in the year that he would not even bring same-sex marriage to a the floor if he wasn’t certain he had the votes. Once it got there, the rules were changed on the floor to disallow debate; both Republicans and Democrats agreed to limit members to two minutes to explain their votes, and there was no role call taken. When Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Democrat who is the most outspoken legislator against gay marriage, tried to lay the bill aside for debate, he was simply ignored by Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy, who was overseeing the chamber. And then when Cuomo’s people got anxious that legislators who were allowed to comment were taking too long, and the 11 PM news hour was drawing near, they began a successful push to stop all other legislators from explaining their vote on the contentious issue.

The New York Times reported that Cuomo made it clear to Democrats and Republicans who were previously opposed to the legislation that he and his 70-percent approval rating would be a bigger asset to them than the backlash they could face for voting to approve same-sex marriage. The Conservative Party has revoked its endorsements of all the Republicans who voted for the bill, and it is expected that the Tea Party will try to primary all of them.

The first Republican to turn, Sen. Jim Alesi of Perinton, was growing unpopular in his district after he sued homeowners whose property he was inspecting without permission. His turnaround on gay marriage has put him in Cuomo’s shining glow and endeared him to progressives. The vote may have saved him. “I believe that if you live in America and you expect equality and freedom for yourself, you should extend it to other people,” Alesi explained of his change of heart. Alesi also denies that he made any deal with Cuomo.

Sen. Roy McDonald (R-Saratoga) represents a moderate district and was under pressure from constituents and local businessman Matt Baumgartner to support the legislation. “You get to the point in your life where everything isn’t black and white and good and bad, and you try to do the right thing,” McDonald told reporters of his decision to vote for marriage equality. “Now, you might not like that. You might think me very cynical about that. Well fuck it; I don’t care what you think.” McDonald was expected to face stiff challenges from Democrats in 2012. Things have shifted, as McDonald began sending out fundraising appeals based on his change of heart before the vote was even taken.

Sen. Stephen Saland from Poughkeepsie was involved in negotiating amendments to the marriage bill that gave religious institutions more “protections.” Saland, who shares a large donor with Cuomo, shakily described the amendments he had negotiated before emotionally announcing that he would vote yes. Sen. Mark Grisanti was the final Republican to announce his support on Friday night. He originally ran for the Senate in 2008 as a Democrat and lost. He won in 2010 as a Republican. During his 2008 run he sent a letter to ministers pledging to be “inalterably opposed to gay marriage.”

“I believe my victory would make an important statement on behalf of those in Western New York who oppose the radical agenda of Senator [Antoine] Thompson and the Senate Democratic leadership on the gay marriage issue,” the letter read. But Grisanti said he had done his homework and decided there was no legal argument against same-sex marriage. Grisanti defeated incumbent Democrat Thompson by only a little more than 500 votes, in a distric where Democrats have a 5-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans.

Democratic legislators say the fiscally conservative governor undoubtedly will be a boon for Republican “yes” voters in their reelection campaigns. Whether Cuomo directly campaigns for them or not, they have already earned his praise.