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Trust but verify: Learning our lesson in New York State

Marriage equality

By Adam Bink

A piece of direct mail, from Fight Back New York, an organization dedicated to unseating Senators who voted against equality

This is a piece of direct mail from Fight Back New York, which worked to unseat State Senators who voted against marriage equality in December 2009. I’ll get to why it’s important in a minute.

Here’s New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo on the current effort to pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in New York (bolding mine):

“This has never been about, on marriage equality, a vote in the Assembly primarily. The Assembly has passed it before. People expect it will pass again. The question is what’s going to happen in the Senate. The discussions that I’ve had with the collective group that is working on this in a unified way is we want to pass a bill. We don’t want to bring a bill up in the Senate that will fail, right? We don’t want to have an instant replay of last year. It’s not about having a vote for a sake of a vote. It’s about if it’s going to pass. and the conversations we’re having now will educate as to whether we’ll bring the bill to a vote.”

Well, that’s the trick, right? Figuring out who is where on the bill and the methods you use to do it.

I spent a lot of time interviewing people and mulling over what went wrong in a December 2009 post at my old stomping grounds, Here’s what openly gay State Senator Tom Duane, who helped lead the push for passage of the bill, said over the course of several months in 2009, and what I wrote in response:

On why in the world we would have a vote only to lose by eight votes, here’s Sen. Tom Duane, the openly gay lead sponsor and vote-counter, back in April:

Sen. Tom Duane, D-Manhattan, the leading advocate of same-sex marriage in the Senate, predicts passage with votes to spare. We’d settle for any margin sufficient to remove one more barrier of discrimination.

In May:

But Tom Duane, the Manhattan Democrat leading the gay marriage push in the Senate, said he’s sure there will be enough votes, including some from Republican lawmakers. With Assembly passage, Duane said “the logjam will be over.”

“There will be some ‘me-tooism,’ ” Duane added.

In June:

State Senator Tom Duane of Manhattan, the openly gay, hyper-vocal proponent of marriage equality, said yesterday that he’s received private assurances from at least 32 of his colleagues that they will vote in favor of a marriage-equality bill introduced by Governor Paterson and recently passed by the State Assembly. Though he wouldn’t specify which senators had pledged support, he did say the list included several Republicans. “I would not want to deny them the pleasure of telling you themselves. That would just be wrong and really impolite of me to do that,” he said, assuring simply: “I have the votes.”

In October, following being called out by the Empire State Pride Agenda at their dinner:

So, I think there’s some fear that marriage might not happen. But it is happening. We have the votes the governor is providing great leadership on it. He absolutely wants it to happen the votes are there for it to pass.

In November:

I’m not releasing my vote count until we’re ready to vote. What people have told me, they’ve told me in confidence. It just wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share that.

One way to look at this is that Duane can’t count votes. Probably more accurate is that he, and the Dem leadership, were lied to en masse. I’m told by a number of reliable sources that we had commitments from several Republicans to vote yes. This felt wrong from the moment I saw not a single Republican spoke on the floor in debate, probably because there was a live video stream and no one wanted to get on tape being a homophobe. Essentially, we got punked.

So here we are today, with many of the same cast of characters and the same game. Sen. Addabbo says he’s thinking about it. Sen. Greg Ball says the same. So does Sen. Alesi, the same Republican Senator who publicly appeared anguished on the Senate floor when it was his turn to vote, most likely because he privately promised Duane he was a yes and then knew the bill would fail when Sen. Addabbo went no. Several others are giving mixed signals.

Thankfully, it appears that Duane learned his lesson. Gay City News reports (bolding mine):

Advocates have been burned before. In 2009, four of the Democratic no votes came from senators, including Addabbo, who received significant gay money and assistance. Before that vote, Duane made bold promises about what would result from the community’s support of those Democrats –– successful marriage and GENDA votes. Following the 2009 debacle, Duane was saying the community had been betrayed. Now, the community needs reliable promises.

“We have to get the majority of senators to say publicly that they will vote in favor of our right to be married and that they will vote in favor of the right of people of transgender experience to have full civil rights,” Duane told reporters following his speech. “They have to say it on the record.”

They have to say it on the record is right. Trust, but verify.

So the question I have is whether we’re going to play the same Albany ballgame with private commitments and whether the Governor and our lead advocates is going to take these words on faith and then get burned when it appears the bill won’t have enough votes to pass (unlike in some states, the roll in New York is called alphabetically, one by one), and our private commitments fall like dominoes, or whether we’re going to put it out in the open and target those who are undecided. As Duncan writes in the Gay City News piece, we’ve been burned before. Speaking from an organizing perspective, we’ve had public efforts before on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, where anyone who read my writing and your comments here at P8TT, or any gay blog, or Ed O’Keefe’s work at the Washington Post, or Chris Johnson’s at the Washington Blade knew who was undecided and who wasn’t. We had it on the public option fight over health care reform. And we drove calls and letters and field organizers and even Lady Gaga to people like Sens. Snowe and Collins in Maine. People aren’t stupid, and when “Call Your Senator” has been done for months, it’s time to step up to sophisticated organizing and giving constituents something to do when their Senators are firmly committed, as well as sympathetic people outside. As of today, there are 26 Senators publicly on the record who said they will vote for the bill — most, in fact, have already in the Assembly or Senate. We need to get to 32.

I posted the image of the mail from Fight Back New York, which targeted and helped defeat three anti-equality State Senators last election and replace them with publicly supportive members, because it’s ironic, and instructive. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The money and enthusiasm for Fight Back New York came about because we got knocked on our rears in December 2009 through a failed method of delivery. Are we going to be insane and do it again?

Cuomo is right. We don’t want to have an instant replay of last year. The question is how we’re going to avoid it.


  • 1. JonT  |  May 12, 2011 at 6:26 am

    Yay, subscribing to posts works again :) Thanks Adam.

    And to stay on topic: I really hope this year is different in New York.

  • 2. Alan E.  |  May 12, 2011 at 6:58 am

    I can't stand when people use the "definition of insanity" line. It's completely overused and can (and has been) be used to support just about any position.

  • 3. Heath  |  May 12, 2011 at 7:06 am


    Agreed, Alan. If I go outside in shorts in June and get a tan, then I go outside in shorts in December and get frostbite, then I've done the same thing twice and *gotten* different results. It's not at all "insane" to expect different results when external circumstances have changed.

    The cliché has overstayed its welcome.

  • 4. Adam Bink  |  May 12, 2011 at 7:08 am

    #3, well, not really. You went outside in different seasons. But it's just a saying, folks.

  • 5. Kathleen  |  May 12, 2011 at 7:09 am

    UPDATE: Perry

    Letter from counsel for Judge Walker regarding April 28 "Order Setting Hearing For Motions"

  • 6. Straight Ally #3008  |  May 12, 2011 at 7:14 am

    Take away as many anti-equality planks as you can – add language to stress that this is "city hall marriage" civil marriage only (yes, that would already follow under the constitution), that it has nothing to do with school curricula, whatever. Use things that get people to be more supportive as per recent polls. Eventually the wall will topple – I think there's even value to failed attempts that get closer and closer to victory.

  • 7. peterplumber  |  May 12, 2011 at 7:26 am

    @Kathleen #5

    I read the letter, but the last paragraph is confusing to me. Was Walker ordered to return this stuff? I thought there was a hearing set to decide whether he needed to return the stuff?

    I thought Walker was a party to this hearing, but that last paragrahp implies he is a non-party.

    Please help me understand this letter.

  • 8. JonT  |  May 12, 2011 at 7:52 am

    @5. Kathleen and @7. peterplumber

    Yes, I am a little confused as to what this letter actually means…

    It seems as if he (Walker) is saying that he has attached the videos in question and therefore no longer possesses them, and therefore the requested order requiring their return is moot.

    But then the footnote seems to imply that as a retired federal judge, he can do whatever he wants to with them.


  • 9. Kathleen  |  May 12, 2011 at 8:08 am

    UPDATE: Perry

    State Defendants' opposition to Proponents' Motion to Vacate Judgment

  • 10. Phillip R  |  May 12, 2011 at 8:09 am

    You'll have to forgive me as I admit ignorance when it comes to government proceedings but is it normal for votes to be taken alphabetically like that?

    Considering human psychology, Abaddo has more power with his vote than anyone else simply because of his last name. So odd.

  • 11. Kathleen  |  May 12, 2011 at 8:20 am

    @JonT and Peterplumber re: Walker's letter

    First, Walker is not a party to the case. I don't believe he can be made a party to the case simply by Proponents asking theat Court to compel some action on his part.

    As to the meaning of the letter, I read it to say that Walker has returned his copy of the trial recordings, pending a decision by the Court on the motion to compel their return and says that by doing so, he has complied with the order setting the hearing and needn't attend.

    I understand the sentence "This is subject to, if necessary, Walker's return for return of the chamber's copy of the recording" and the footnote to mean that he's making it clear that even if these recording are in the possession of the court, they belong to him and he may request their return.

  • 12. Sagesse  |  May 12, 2011 at 9:18 am

    @ Kathleen #11. That was how I read it too. It's like paying money into court as security, pending resolution. And Walker doesn't have to show up like he's been called to the principal's office.

  • 13. Maggie4NoH8  |  May 12, 2011 at 10:40 am

    I love Kamala!

    And I ABSOLUTELY love the quote in the conclusion from Judge Higginbotham (a black judge):

    "…so long as white judges preside over matters where white and black litigants disagree, I will preside over matters where black and white litigants disagree."

    That is really powerful stuff!

  • 14. Adam Bink  |  May 12, 2011 at 11:18 am

    @Phillip, it's a good question and a good point. I know in other states like Maryland, it's a blind vote. In Congress, House members record by electronic device on most votes and it's blind. In the Senate, Senators approach the desk and indicate thumbs up for a yea and thumbs down for a nay.

  • 15. Heath  |  May 12, 2011 at 11:37 am


    But if you're going to count doing the same thing at two different times as different actions, then doesn't that make the definition of insanity vacuous? After all, it's impossible to do the same thing *again* at the same time as the original act.

  • 16. Kathleen  |  May 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    UPDATE: Windsor v. USA (DOMA case in NY)

    The House BLAG's Reply in support of its motion to intervene as Defendant-Intervenor.

  • 17. Alan E.  |  May 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Anyone else see like 10 posts from P8TT come up on their Google Reader at 6:04 pm (Pacific)? I thought I was going to have to subscribe to them all over again.

  • 18. Sagesse  |  May 12, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    This doesn't seem to catch NOM, but could be a threat to them. These funds are a blight on the democratic process.

    I.R.S. Moves to Tax Gifts to Groups Active in Politics

  • 19. Sagesse  |  May 12, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    Adds some depth to the coverage.

    House Committee approves three DADT/DOMA amendments

  • 20. Greg  |  May 13, 2011 at 3:48 am

    "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

    The nice thing about adages is that there is always another adage that contradicts it.

  • 21. LL Cool  |  May 13, 2011 at 8:25 am

    In recent times, the Church has issued the "just say no" campaign against same-sex marriage depicting children as victims of allowing same sex couples to marry. What they fail to understand is that many of those young people are tomorrows gays and lesbians. That is a fact. They deserve to choose (legally) who there partner is going to be. These young people are also tomorrows doctors, inventors, scientists, lawyers, politicians who should not have to face the kind of ignorant discrimination blacks, women and Jews have had to face. If, as a member of the NY State Senate you vote "No" to recognizing same-sex marriage in New York State, (or any place across this nation) how are you, Senator, going to explain to tomorrows children (perhaps your very own son or daughter) that you took away their right to choose? We owe it to ALL couples the right to choose who they marry. Fear can no longer be part of the equation. Religious beliefs or interpretations of such things is no longer an excuse to doing what is right! Choose What's Right…because its the Right thing to do.

  • 22. Adam Bink » Blog Ar&hellip  |  April 17, 2012 at 11:31 am

    […] Trust but verify: Learning our lesson in New York State, Prop8TrialTracker, May 12, 2011: This is a piece looking at what circumstances in strategy led to failure to pass a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in 2009, and how to avoid them the next time around. […]

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