Andrew Cuomo ran as a relatively moderate Democrat when he won a landslide victory in the New York governor’s race last year, and he followed it up by deploying his significant political capital to austerity measures and balancing the budget.
Until he tacked in a more progressive direction. On Friday night, the New York State Legislature voted 33-29 to legalize same-sex marriage.
By aggressively lobbying for marriage equality, Cuomo earned a special spot in liberal hearts across America, ensuring he can’t be dismissed as a contender in presidential politics come 2016, having won a victory on an issue that has increasingly become synonymous with social justice.
Just as important, the victory for gay rights–with a stroke of a pen, Cuomo, doubled the number of people living in a state where marriage equality is the law–ensures other states will take on the issue as well, potentially bringing it into the 2012 presidential race as a wedge issue, just as it was in 2004 when George W. Bush used it to mobilize Evangelicals.
Proponents, including those in Maryland (and Rhode Island, and perhaps Oregon and Delaware, too), will look to mimic the success of Cuomo’s public and private efforts, while avoiding any more embarrassing defeats, as were suffered in California and Maine when ballot initiatives undid progress:
“They’ve shown a way to actually get a bill through a Legislature,” said Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Democratic state senator in Maryland and sponsor of the marriage bill that was shelved. “And I think we’re going to use some of the same lessons, the same tactics, in Maryland over the next six months.”
Mr. Madaleno, in a telephone interview on Saturday, said Maryland gay-rights advocates had failed to mount the kind of vigorous, multi-million dollar grass-roots campaign that their allies in New York ran this spring. Nor had they pressed the state’s Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, to deploy his own political capital and muscle on their behalf, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did in New York.
“We had not done as good a job beating the bushes in districts as they did in New York,” Mr. Madaleno said. “Our hope is that not only will our legislature take a cue from our colleagues in Albany, but that our governor might as well.”
Perhaps the most striking shift in Albany was the role played by Republican lawmakers in the State Senate. Republican senators voted unanimously against same-sex marriage two years ago, when they were in the minority; this year, with a majority in the chamber, they not only allowed the marriage bill to come to the floor, but also provided the final votes necessary to approve it. The decision by 4 Republicans to join 29 Democrats to push the measure through the 62-seat Senate marked the first time in the nation that a legislative body controlled by Republicans approved either same-sex marriages or civil unions, advocates said.
That shift was precipitated by the emergence of a growing constituency of pro-gay-marriage operatives and donors in the Republican Party, whose direction on social issues is still largely set by its culturally conservative base.
Cuomo reportedly worked closely with big-money hedge fund Republicans to insulate potentially vulnerable Republican state senators from challenges based on their votes. Other states will need popular personalities, it would seem, and not just general arguments about equality, to use the bully pulpit and make the case for change.