It was a nail-biter for sure; 50,000 New Yorkers gathered around their streaming video players late into the night on Friday watching the proceedings in the Senate live, and hundreds of thousands more compulsively reloaded their browsers, and another million or two watched NY1 and CNN. But at the end of the evening, something amazing had occurred: a Republican-led State Senate, in a close vote that turned on the decisions of a handful of Republicans, voted to extend the social sanction of marriage to New York’s gay and lesbian citizens, bringing us a little closer to equal treatment under the law.
“Activist judges” didn’t have anything to do with it, and this wasn’t a matter of Democratic political horse-trading, either. Most of the money in this fight came from Republicans, as did a good portion of the back-room lobbying (notably from Mike Bloomberg, who had no problem at all putting himself on the line for equality, and has proven himself yet again to be a mensch).
It’s clear from Michael Barbaro’s post-mortem in the Times that even back in 2009, there were Republican legislators who had no problem with gay marriage, but who voted against it out of political expediency. This isn’t news, but it’s nice to see it stated so unequivocally. It’s also clear that among the many people who helped make this happen, three people played an outsized role.
One was Governor Andrew Cuomo, who threw his considerable political weight behind the issue and was willing to invest himself personally in legislative advocacy of both the institutional and personal varieties. In contrast to 2009, he insisted on a tight coalition, and a tight coalition was what he got, and that made much of the difference. (We learn yet again: old-fashioned political organizing matters.) Far from hurting Andrew Cuomo, strong advocacy on this issue will only prove to have helped him politically, and not just with gay people; he’s demonstrated a willingness to cross the aisle, to insist on the issues that matter, and to use his political power to ensure they get considered.
The second was Mike Bloomberg, in this context quite a bit more than nominally a Republican (he’s the single biggest donor to Republican State Senators), who was blunt and eloquent by turns, spending more time in Albany this year than we had any right to expect him to, despite having nothing personally or politically to gain here, at least in the short term. The definition of a mensch.
And the third was Brian Ellner, head of HRC’s New York marriage task force. Ellner ran what by all accounts was an extremely professional two-pronged campaign. On the one hand, he did a better job in six months of mobilizing public figures (from all over the political and cultural spectrum) to voice their support for marriage equality than any other group had managed to do in ten years. And on the other, he was responsive and effective in the field. Barbaro credits Ellner personally, and the field campaign he ran, with turning Joseph Addabbo from a “nay” into a “yea”; it’s not inconceivable that without that piece, the whole puzzle might have fallen apart. So thanks, Brian, for what you’ve done for New Yorkers.
The true heroes here, though, are the Republican Senators who cast off the demands of politics and voted their consciences. A special thanks to Senators Kruger, McDonald, Alesi, Addabbo, Grisanti, and Saland, who might easily have come down on the other side, but weighed the issues against their personal vanity and voted the right way. Senators Grisanti and Saland, each in his own way, did New York proud with their speeches on the floor Friday night, and they in particular should be remembered.