When President Obama greets gays and lesbians in the East Room on Wednesday for his annual gay pride celebration, he will face an audience who now views him as a diminished, if not unwilling, advocate for their equality. He can thank the incredible victory for marriage equality in New York and the extraordinary leadership shown by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for that. His breath-taking feat just six months in office has only raised the expectation that the president of the United States should be able to deliver same at the federal level.
While the comparison with Cuomo is understandable, it’s not exactly right. Cuomo had advantages as governor that Obama doesn’t have as president. And he had the advantage of learning lessons from a failed attempt by his predecessor two years earlier. If anything, in addition to holding Obama’s feet to the fire, advocates for marriage equality would do well to create on a national level the coordinated effort that helped to make success in New York possible. And the president will have to step off the sidelines to lead them.
“The NY State Constitution [creates] a strong governor,” Mitchell Moss, professor at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and an expert on New York City and state politics, told me by e-mail. “[T]he governor has enormous power to force the state legislature into session, to control the flow of money to various economic development projects, and to use his power of appointment to exec agencies and public authorities.” Those public authorities, which finance hospitals, universities, and all sorts of land development projects through the Empire State Development Corp., are where the real power is wielded across the state. On top of that, Cuomo “has been able to dominate the legislature.” The Republicans have a one-seat hold on the majority in the Senate and the Assembly is firmly in the hands of the Democrats.
Cuomo is also not term-limited. And because ousting a sitting New York governor is tough (between 1975 and 2006, there were only three governors), Cuomo has more freedom to act boldly. Then there were the state dynamics that Cuomo worked to his advantage.
“NY does not have a strong grass-roots right wing fundamentalist base of Protestants or politicians,” Moss said. It does have a state Conservative Party that has been successful in keeping Republican lawmakers from “stray[ing] too far” by threatening to deny them access to its ballot line, which Moss notes is “often essential” to a GOP win in New York State. But in the battle over gay marriage a new threat emerged.
“[T]he gay money and vote is actually more of a threat than the Conservative’s in certain districts,” Moss noted. Because Republicans don’t hold any of the statewide offices, maintaining control of the state Senate is a priority for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. According to Moss, “[Skelos] understood that a vote for same-sex marriage would actually help him keep his majority if the gay money went elsewhere, and was NOT used to oppose his members.” As Michael Barbaro outlined in his riveting New York Times tick-tock of events that led to Friday’s historic vote, deep-pocketed gays and Republicans backed up Cuomo’s push with promises of financial help for wavering GOP state senators.
What the Barbaro account also highlights is a hands-on Cuomo. He put the power of his office behind the power of his words of support for marriage equality. He corralled the gay groups that bickered with each other two years ago under one coordinated umbrella. They were the troops, and Cuomo was their general — a very popular one who enjoys a 64 percent approval rating compared to the ethically challenged legislature (17 percent for both the state Senate and the assembly).
So, Cuomo had a powerful hammer over the legislature. He didn’t have to worry about an energized Republican opposition hellbent on scuttling his priorities. And he had the people of New York solidly in his corner. All things Obama doesn’t have going for him nationally. Those who want the president to do more on marriage equality at the federal level will have to do more themselves to help create a Cuomo environment for Obama.