Exclusive: Jennifer Cunningham, The Cuomo Strategist That Made Gay Marriage Happen in New York, Dishes On The Win And Where Marriage Equality Goes From Here
It took a lot of heavy lifting to make gay marriage a reality for New Yorkers, a previous effort having failed as recently as 2009, and the strategist that pushed it across the finish line, Jennifer Cunningham of SKDKnickerbocker, tells The National Memo in an exclusive interview that the win this time around was thanks to a confluence of factors, the support of labor unions and the sheer passage of time not least among them.
“I think it was the perfect marriage of a public campaign that mobilized the majority of voters to support marriage coupled with a smart, strategic inside strategy,” she said on Wednesday. “There were three things going for us [compared to 2009]: One was a popular governor who was very passionate about the issue, the second was a real change in public opinion since the last time it was voted on to the point where we had a strong majority of New Yorkers who supported it, and the third thing was we had a unified and broad coalition to make sure the voices of New Yorkers who wanted change to happen were heard.”
Cunningham, who thanks to her years of widely respected lobbying and consulting work in state politics is often referred to as the most powerful woman in Albany, first became known as a prominent labor strategist, serving as political director for the 1199/SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the most politically potent union in the state (and perhaps the entire Northeast).
She informally advised Andrew Cuomo as he positioned himself for a successful gubernatorial run last year, and it was because of her close ties to the governor that the coalition of gay rights groups fighting for marriage equality hired her this spring.
Her ties to labor didn’t hurt, either, despite the traditional divide between unions and the Democratic Party’s growing progressivism on social issues since the 1950s.
“The New York labor movement stepped up big time for this campaign. It was one of the consequential pieces of the broad coalition we wanted to bring together, which included business leaders and others from around the state. The labor movement not only endorsed the legislation, they did lobbying efforts in Albany, they held rallies, they wrote postcards, they donated phone-banks; this was much more than just a nod in favor of the legislation, it was involving their rank and file to be a key part of the effort.”
She said a critical component of the campaign was making it less about partisan politics and instead defined by a question of human rights.
“I think the key thing here is we did everything we could to humanize the issue so that voters and lawmakers were reminded that we are talking about their friends and their neighbors and their constituents and in some cases their family members. These are couples in loving, committed relationships who simply want to be free to marry the person they love. It was thrilling to be able to be part of making history.”
Hesitant to criticize President Obama’s position on the issue–he has waffled between openly backing gay marriage as a state senator in Illinois in the 1990s to rejecting it in the 2008 campaign and is now hinting that he’s moving back toward support–Cunningham praised his aggressive rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, signed by Bill Clinton in 1996, which hamstrings state efforts to provide for marriage equality.
“I would say that in the midst of this debt ceiling crisis, I was really proud and impressed to see him coming out so forcefully against DOMA,” she said. “I think he is being extremely helpful by addressing this, and I think he’s been clear that marriage should be decided by the states.”
Going forward, Cunningham says the fact that young people are overwhelmingly supportive ensures continued gains.
“I think just in the passage of time, this is a movement that is going to see success, because young people will be growing up and former a larger part of the electorate than ever.”
She said there wasn’t one method to achieving marriage equality, and that a combination of approaches was needed depending on the political environment in any given state.
“I suspect that, like many of the civil rights struggles that have come before this one, there will be many vehicles — judicial, legislative, voter referendums — for helping to achieve equality. Since the circumstances in each state are different there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy.”
Though reluctant to say it would be a foundational issue in the next Democratic presidential primary in 2016 the way the Iraq War was in 2008, Cunningham hinted at the increasing potency of the issue, while suggesting politicians would have to be careful not to let it define their campaigns.
“Not everybody can be in front of it. I think by 2016 we will have seen advances on this issue; but [will we see] single-issue voters on this? I suspect not. I think that’s rarely the case, particularly when an economy is troubled, that’s always at the top of peoples’ minds.”
Cunningham is certain to remain in close contact with Cuomo as he continues his work in Albany, and we can be reasonably confident that if he does run for president in 2016 as many are now predicting, she will be a key player either in his official campaign apparatus or more informally as an outside advisor.
Follow National Correspondent Matt Taylor on Twitter: @matthewt_ny