25 June 2011


In a historic vote with far-reaching implications, the New York State Senate passed the marriage equality bill Friday, making New York the sixth and most populous state in addition to Washington, D.C., to offer civil marriage for same-sex couples.

The 33-29 vote, including four Republicans, came at the end of the legislative session and capped a dramatic week in Albany, where loud protests for and against the bill, many based in religious belief, filled the hallways outside the Senate chamber and the majority conference room at the state capitol. New York became the first state with a Republican-controlled legislative body to pass a marriage equality bill, following passage multiple times in the Democratic-controlled state Assembly since 2007.

The marriage equality law will take effect 30 days after being signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Home to almost 20 million people and the nation’s largest city, New York will double the number of Americans living in a state with marriage equality and bring international attention to the latest chapter in the gay rights movement. The development appears destined to become a national turning point, with litigation pending in the federal court system and legislation under consideration in other states while public opinion trends toward majority support for marriage equality, according to recent polls.

In the immediate future, the vote in New York would seem to demand a response from President Barack Obama, who continues to evolve on his marriage equality position. In an address to gay Democratic donors at a major Pride Month fund-raiser in Manhattan Thursday, he said he supported equal rights for couples but stopped short of supporting gay marriage.

The Senate vote in New York caps an intensely coordinated, bipartisan campaign under the direction of Gov. Cuomo that raised an estimated $2 million, more than half of it from Republican-affiliated donors. The governor worked with New Yorkers United for Marriage, a bipartisan coalition of five LGBT organizations: Human Rights Campaign, Empire State Pride Agenda, Log Cabin Republicans, Marriage Equality New York, and Freedom To Marry.

Such coordination, let alone victory, seemed nearly unimaginable less than two years ago, when in December 2009 the marriage equality bill failed in the then Democratic-controlled Senate by a vote of 24 to 38, with no Republicans in support. Since that time, Republicans regained control of the Senate and gay donors helped unseat three senators, two Democrats and one Republican, who voted against the bill, replacing them with yes votes to bring the measure six votes of passing of passing at the start of this year.

The marriage equality push found a champion in Cuomo, a popular Democratic governor and former attorney general who took office in January. Under the supervision of his office, the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition formed this spring, pulling together resources in a way never before seen on the state level to execute a unified communications, field and lobbying campaign targeting voters and undecided state senators.

Following months of quiet preparation, the campaign launched publicly in April and quickly coalesced its message around a poll that showed 58% of New Yorkers, a historic majority, supported the legalization of same-sex marriage. Business, labor and religious leaders spoke in support, while a range of celebrities, sports figures, everyday New Yorkers, and elected officials, including former president Bill Clinton, endorsed the effort. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered a public speech on the topic, in addition to lobbying and fund-raising.

Powerful forces of opposition also converged in New York. The Catholic Church and the National Organization for Marriage lobbied against the marriage equality bill, and the influential Conservative Party of New York State vowed to withhold its endorsement from any Republican lawmaker who supported the proposal. In the end, their efforts failed, although concerns within the Republican Senate conference resulted in a week-long negotiation over religious protections that at times seemed to threaten the bill’s prospects.

Long in development, momentum for marriage equality seemed to take hold in the second-to-last week of the legislative session, when three undecided Democratic state senators who voted no in 2009 announced they would support the bill, bringing every member of their conference on board except the avowedly antigay Ruben Diaz Sr. Soon after, James Alesi, the first Republican state senator to support the bill, joined them, followed by his colleague Roy McDonald.

The total number of senators in support of the bill stood at 31, just one vote shy of passage until the last moment, when the Republican conference under the leadership of Sen. Dean Skelos announced it would bring the measure to the floor for a vote.

Two more Republican votes, from Stephen Saland and Mark Grisanti, remained unrevealed until the floor debate, adding to the suspense as Pride weekend began in New York City.

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