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How The Battle For NY Marriage Equality Was Won

June 27, 2011 12:18 pm ET by Richard Socarides

On March 9, 2011, when the still-new governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, walked into the history-laden Red Room at the state capitol in Albany, the small group of us invited in secret just the day before to hear his plan for same-sex marriage weren't sure what to expect. Cuomo had said during his campaign that, if elected governor, he would support full marriage rights for gay New Yorkers.

But this group of us, all rights leaders who had worked on these issues for decades, were accustomed to politicians who over-promised during their campaigns and then under-delivered.

There were very few preliminaries. Cuomo spoke forcefully and clearly, saying that in a month or so, after he was done with the notoriously difficult state budget, he would turn his full attention to same-sex marriage. It would be his number one priority, and, said Cuomo, "I am going to work for this as hard as I have ever worked for anything in my life."

These were astonishing words we had never heard from a straight politician before. Not in the history of the gay rights movement. Even more shocking, they turned out to be true. He meant it. (Participants were asked not to share the details of this and future strategy sessions until after Cuomo's goal was achieved.)

It will take some time to absorb the substantial national implications of New York becoming the sixth and largest state to currently allow same-sex marriage. But it is clear how and why it happened. Three main factors came together perfectly to give the gay rights movement one of its biggest victories ever.

The first factor is, of course, Cuomo's extremely capable and self-confident political leadership. This is his victory. 

Cuomo had a lot going for him, including high poll numbers, early success with the notoriously difficult state legislature on his budget, leadership on the marriage issue from fellow New Yorkers Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, but it was his willingness to risk substantial political capital for a progressive social agenda item historically not popular with mainstream politicians (even Democrats) that made the big difference here. 

Cuomo sees this as a political winner of an issue for someone with a future in national politics and he is right. The trends are unmistakable. 

Cuomo went to fellow Democrats and would not take no for an answer and was able to convince just enough Republicans, like hero State Sen. Jim Alesi, to support him. 

That he was able to accomplish this during a tough economic crisis and with a divided legislature is all the more remarkable. There is no other national political figure in the country who is leading on this issue like Andrew Cuomo.

Second, the dramatic shift in public opinion in New York and nationally was a huge factor. Several national polls this year have shown that we have reached a tipping point in favor of same-sex marriage. In New York, the pro-marriage shift has been even more dramatic.

Last year, gay groups like Fight Back NY waged campaigns against anti-gay state legislators district by district with mixed results. But as public opinion shifts, these legislators did not want a repeat of the well-funded efforts to retire them, especially in light of shifting public opinion. Moreover, they saw substantial Republican money and business interest lining up on the pro-marriage side and didn't want those interests spending to beat them in the next election. All of this contributed to the successful effort to bring on enough Republican votes for a victory.

Third and finally, gay rights advocates got their act together and worked in a collaborative way. They formed a coalition amongst themselves and with the business community and organized labor. They out-spent and out-organized the right-wing National Organization for Marriage. The Catholic Church hierarchy was very slow to react on this one (partially due to the relatively under-the-radar campaign operation the Cuomo team orchestrated). Last time around, in 2009, the reverse was the case, and the marriage bill failed in the State Senate by a vote of 38 to 24.

Having same-sex marriage rights in New York will be a major boast to efforts nationally for full equality. It will have a positive impact on both the California Prop 8 litigation and the constitutional challenges to the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. According to the Williams Institute, a pro-gay rights think tank, the percentage of the U.S. population living in a state that allows same-sex couples to marry will more than double, from 5.1% to 11.4%. The normative power of the actual begins to take effect.