The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Andrew Cuomo overstates his record on same-sex marriage

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (Seth Wenig/AP)

“When I passed marriage equality, I went down in the polls. … When we started with marriage equality, the majority of the people in this state were against it. It wasn’t even close. I’ll bet you it was 70 percent opposition, because the case of first impression always gets the most opposition.”
— Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.), in remarks to reporters, June 11, 2018

“First state to pass marriage equality.”
— Cuomo, in remarks to reporters, June 12, 2018

Cuomo was one of the first governors to sign same-sex marriage legislation. But that was seven years ago, and time seems to have blurred his memory of the details.

The bottom line is that legalizing same-sex marriage in New York was an easier lift than Cuomo remembers, not exactly the David-and-Goliath struggle he’s describing in hindsight.

Cuomo, who’s running for a third term, is facing a Democratic primary challenge this year from Cynthia Nixon, the award-winning actress of “Sex and the City” fame. Nixon is gay and married her partner in 2012, months after New York recognized same-sex marriage rights. Although she gives Cuomo credit for signing the bill, it’s the begrudging kind.

“He had a lot of big Republican donors who wanted the marriage issue to go away because they thought it was making the party look bad,” Nixon told New York magazine. “And it was getting embarrassing — Iowa had marriage equality and not New York.”

Highlighting his record on same-sex marriage makes sense for Cuomo as he courts New York’s liberal voters and seeks to tamp down Nixon’s appeal. His exaggerations are puzzling, though, since he can point to real accomplishments on this issue, and polls show he has a commanding lead.

The Facts

Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act on June 24, 2011, months after taking office. The bill passed 80 to 63 in the Democratic-controlled state Assembly and 33 to 29 in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it got four GOP votes.

The law’s passage gave momentum to the same-sex marriage campaign nationwide. The New York Times described it as an “unexpected victory” for gay rights supporters and Cuomo as their “clear champion.” When Democrats held the governorship and both chambers of the New York legislature in 2009, a same-sex marriage bill failed. But Cuomo got it through a Republican-held Senate in 2011. Four years later, after more states followed suit, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proudly announced the passage of the Marriage Equality Act that granted same-sex couples the freedom to marry under the law on June 2 (Video: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo)

‘When I passed marriage equality, I went down in the polls’

We couldn’t find any polls in which Cuomo’s approval or favorable rating suffered from his signing of the Marriage Equality Act.

In two reputable polls tracking New York politics (Quinnipiac University and Siena College), Cuomo’s numbers actually went up in the months after he signed the bill. Pollsters said Cuomo was buoyed by his response to a pair of tropical storms in late summer 2011.

Let’s unpack this.

In the Quinnipiac poll, Cuomo had 56 percent approval and 15 percent disapproval in February 2011. By June 1, weeks before he signed the same-sex marriage bill, his net approval rating had risen to 61-18. Days after signing the bill, Cuomo inched up to 64-19 in a June 29 poll.

The Marriage Equality Act took effect in July 2011. In the next Quinnipiac poll, taken Aug. 10, Cuomo’s numbers had declined to 62-22. But the drop was largely inside the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points, and in the following months, after the storm surges, Cuomo’s approval rating bounced back up to 66-17 in September, 65-19 in October and 68-17 in December.

In the Siena poll, Cuomo had a 77 percent favorable rating and 16 percent unfavorable rating in February 2011.

That dropped to 68-21 in June, then rose to 71-21 in July after he signed the gay-marriage bill. Cuomo was at 72-18 in September and 72-22 in November.

Asked whether the Marriage Equality Act hurt Cuomo’s poll numbers in any way, a spokesman for the Siena College poll, Steven A. Greenberg, said the short answer was “no.”

“He can certainly and appropriately take credit for passing and signing the law in New York on marriage equality,” Greenberg said. “It may be too early to tell if Nixon will be able to cut into Cuomo’s support within the LGBTQ community. He certainly has support from much of the leadership in the community but it remains to be seen over the course of the campaign in the next three months whether she can move the needle with rank and file voters.”

‘When we started with marriage equality, the majority of the people in this state were against it.’

Cuomo said he would bet “it was 70 percent opposition,” but he should hold onto his money.

A range of polling indicates that a majority of New Yorkers supported same-sex marriage both before the governor took office and at the time he signed the bill.

The Quinnipiac poll found that a slim majority of New Yorkers (51 percent) supported same-sex marriage in June 2009. A Marist poll from December 2009 also found 51 percent support.

By the time Cuomo took office in January 2011, that level of support had grown to 56 percent in the Quinnipiac poll. Shortly before Cuomo signed the bill, support was at 58 percent in a June 2 poll. Days after he signed it, support was at 54 percent in a June 28 poll.

Meanwhile, Siena College found that 55 percent supported and 40 percent opposed same-sex marriage in a June 2011 poll released before the law’s passage. A Marist poll released a month after the law took effect, on Aug. 20, 2011, found 55 percent were for it and 36 percent were against.

Cuomo’s office said these polls don’t tell the whole story, because not all parts of New York (the state) are as liberal as New York (the city). Three of the four Republican state senators who supported same-sex marriage lost their seats or declined to run for reelection, and the fourth, Mark J. Grisanti, later voted for a controversial gun-control measure and ended up losing his seat as well.

The governor’s press secretary, Dani Lever, also said his remark  — “When we started with marriage equality, the majority of the people in this state were against it” — was not a reference to his own push for gay marriage, but to efforts dating to 2007 under governors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson.

This “royal we” level of nuance wasn’t clear from Cuomo’s comments, but gay marriage was indeed much less popular in New York before 2009.

‘First state to pass marriage equality’

This seems like a slip of the tongue. Cuomo’s staff sent us transcripts of 10 different speeches over the last two years in which the governor said New York was “the first big state” or “the first large state” to recognize same-sex marriage rights. Notice the qualifiers there.

Anyway, before New York got around to it, three other states had passed laws granting marriage rights to gay couples. Vermont’s law took effect in September 2009 and New Hampshire’s on the first day of 2010. Connecticut recognized gay-marriage rights through a 2008 court ruling that was codified in statute in 2009.

Although Iowa and Massachusetts had not “passed” laws, courts in those states extended marriage rights to gay couples years before New York took action. California’s top court also ruled for same-sex marriage in 2008, but its decision was thwarted months later by a ballot measure, Proposition 8, and the ensuing legal battle dragged on for years.

“As the governor always says, New York was the first big state to pass marriage equality and pushed the national debate on the issue forward,” Lever said. “When the conversation around the issue started in earnest in New York, it was unpopular.”

Lever said Cuomo made his same-sex marriage comments as a way to illustrate what he’s facing now in trying to pass a “red flag” bill. This proposal would give legal standing to school officials to request that a judge evaluate a child believed to be a threat. A judge could then order the confiscation of any firearms in that child’s home.

“In explaining his push to pass a red flag bill, the governor was conveying that doing the right thing is not always the most popular thing,” Lever said. “Passing marriage equality took tremendous effort and political capital to get Republicans (and some Democrats, as it had failed to pass with the Democrats in the majority before) in the state Senate to pass the measure.”

The Pinocchio Test

Cuomo has plenty to brag about when it comes to gay rights. His successful push for same-sex marriage required tactical skill and political capital at a time when the nationwide movement was still trying to gain traction.

But it didn’t hurt his poll numbers, and he didn’t foist this bill on an unwilling electorate. Polls show that Cuomo’s numbers actually improved afterward and that a clear majority of New York voters supported same-sex marriage at the time.

In short, the governor’s story is compelling without embellishing the facts. He puffed them up for some reason, and he gets Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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Three Pinocchios
"When I passed marriage equality, I went down in the polls. … When we started with marriage equality, the majority of the people in this state were against it. It wasn’t even close."
in remarks to reporters
Monday, June 11, 2018