NY Gov. Cuomo the new face of gay marriage rights

June 18, 2011 - 12:30 PM
Gay Marriage NY

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks with reporters at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Friday, June 17, 2011. Gov. Andrew Cuomo held more one-on-one negotiations Friday with Senate Republicans who worry his bill to legalize gay marriage doesn't do enough to protect religious groups and churches that refuse to preside over same-sex weddings and other services. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become a prominent champion of legalized gay marriage, pushing his state into the center of the national debate over an emotional and divisive issue.

In the past week, the Democrat has personally lobbied wavering Republican lawmakers and has said the extension of marriage rights to gays and lesbians is "a matter of principle, not politics."

"This state has a proud tradition and a proud legacy as the progressive capital of the nation," he said Friday. "We led the way, and it's time for New York to lead the way once again."

The effort carries some political peril but could be potentially rewarding, given evolving public sentiment on gay rights in New York and the nation.

"It looks like a profile in courage, and maybe it is," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "But it also may be politically smart in the long run."

Cuomo's support for gay rights is already known to New York voters. His efforts this past week to get the bill through the Republican-controlled state Senate — the lone roadblock to passage — make good on an issue he ran on last year. During that campaign, he took his daughters to a gay pride parade in New York City, drawing sharp criticism from his Republican opponent.

"The governor is putting skin in the game and has a steadfast commitment to the issue," said Kevin Nix of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group. "That he's made marriage equality a priority for this legislative session speaks volumes about his commitment."

As a purely political matter, advocating for gay marriage makes sense for Democrats in a state like New York, where gay groups are players in party politics. Cuomo's lobbying, coming after he pushed through a fiscally conservative budget, also could burnish his image among liberals.

Cuomo is an astute politician who was a key player in his father's campaigns for New York governor three decades ago, then was schooled in President Bill Clinton's Cabinet, where he served as Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary.

The lessons learned from both are at play during this debate: The lofty, inclusive idealism of his father matched by Clinton's practical politics.

He is opposed, though, by some conservative groups and religious leaders. Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York last week in a blog likened the effort to "redefine" marriage to something that would be done in China or North Korea.

Still, polls this year have shown that more than half of voters in New York support gay marriage, with backing heaviest among Democrats. Cuomo's position is also in line with New York's last two governors and its two Democratic U.S. senators. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been a high-profile advocate of gay rights issues, and Sen. Charles Schumer came out in support of gay marriage in 2009.

In fact, the reason Cuomo can push for gay marriage is that he holds office in a relatively liberal state. Nationwide, governors supporting same-sex marriage appear to be in the minority. Among them are Democrats Deval Patrick in neighboring Massachusetts and Jerry Brown in California.

Cuomo, less than six months in office, has not said publicly that he wants to run for national office. But his ambition, record of success and relatively young age (53), raises the question: Could his stance on gay marriage hurt him if he aspires to be president?

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said the strong opposition to gay marriage around the country is evidenced by the 30 states with constitutional language defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

"We never lost a public vote on marriage in any state," he said.

A Gallup poll last month found national support for same-sex marriage going up 9 points from the previous year to 53 percent (support was at 27 percent in 1996). Support is highest among younger people, a major reason why many analysts believe the trend will continue.

And Sabato said that could make Cuomo's issue a winner for him in the coming years, particularly since many Democratic constituencies who will choose the party's nominee favor same-sex marriage.

"The earliest he could run is 2016," Sabato said. "And I think his gamble is that the country is evolving on this issue and moving in New York's direction."

Cuomo has actually shifted on the issue himself, at least in public.

He favored civil unions for same-sex partners during his first, aborted run for New York governor in 2002. At that time, Vermont allowed civil unions. No states would have legal same-sex marriage until Massachusetts in 2004.

By the time he ran for attorney general in 2006, he was using the words "gay marriage." And he won the race easily. The New York Times had quoted Cuomo as saying he had supported gay marriage in his heart during the 2002 campaign, but didn't make it an issue because the political focus then was on civil unions.