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Gay marriage fight shows N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is no rookie

It caps a productive legislative session that also showed his political skills in dealing with a budget deficit, taxes and labor unions.

June 25, 2011|By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo takes a victory lap in the State Senate chamber after the historic vote to legalize same-sex marriage.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo takes a victory lap in the State Senate chamber… (Mike Groll, Associated…)

Reporting from New York — New York's Andrew Cuomo may be a freshman governor, but he's no rookie.

For 12 years, during his father's two terms in the governor's mansion, and as attorney general, Cuomo had an up-close look at how Albany works — and its famously gross dysfunction. By all assessments, he drew on that experience to have a productive first legislative session, capped by passage of a same-sex marriage bill while the whole country was watching.

Just two years earlier, a measure to legalize same-sex marriage had failed.

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch ticked off Cuomo's legislative accomplishments this session and exclaimed, "It's absolutely astounding that he got all that done." Describing a self-satisfied Cuomo walking onto the Senate floor Friday night to rousing applause after the marriage vote, Koch said: "He looked like Caesar crossing the Rubicon."

While that piece of legislation put the 53-year-old Democratic governor in the national spotlight — he's already set off chatter about a possible presidential bid in 2016 — Cuomo most impressed Albany insiders by how, even as he was denouncing the state capital's hapless way of doing business and multiple scandals, he was working the backrooms to get things done.

During the first legislative session in years to finish on time, Cuomo closed a $10-billion budget deficit by making education and healthcare cuts and without increasing taxes; he negotiated New York's first cap on property taxes; and he stunned even jaded legislators by getting the public employee unions to agree to a freeze on wages without taking away bargaining rights. His staff is quick to point out that for six months his overall approval rating never fell below 60%.

Mike Avella, a Republican lobbyist who has known Cuomo since their early years in Albany, said the governor remained engaged on every issue, and not just with the GOP leader, Sen. Dean Skelos of Long Island, but with individual members.

"Instead of just putting together a budget or a position on any one issue and just throwing it at the legislators, he made them feel a part of the process," said Avella, a former Senate aide who, as a lobbyist for Republicans supporting gay marriage, served as liaison on the issue between Skelos and Cuomo.

"The last week of the session, Cuomo was calling me often to make sure that the Senate majority leader was comfortable with his strategy on gay marriage," Avella said.

Cuomo apparently called Democratic Sen. Joseph Addabbo of the governor's native Queens so often about same-sex marriage that the senator complained he was sick of hearing from the governor. Ultimately, Addabbo reversed his position and voted for the bill.

Others observed that Cuomo's approach was not so much to divide and conquer as it was to cultivate, one by one — and orchestrate like an ace chess player where he wanted to come out. He made it clear to Republicans that aligning with a popular Democratic governor could do them more good than harm, and he wasn't above reminding allies it was in their best interest to remain disciplined and stick with his plan.

At times, Cuomo proved to be as much showman as politician.

In the negotiations over gay marriage, Republicans had warned Cuomo that they wouldn't even listen to him on the issue until he had every Democrat in the 62-member Senate on board. After he had commitments from all but one senator, a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx, Cuomo held a victory news conference followed by a private meeting with gay marriage advocates in a conference room next to his office.

About 20 minutes after the meeting broke up, the governor suddenly summoned everyone back and announced, "I want to introduce you to the first Republican who is going to support you." In walked Sen. James Alesi, who had disappointed Democrats by casting a surprising no vote against same-sex marriage in 2009.

All 15 people in the room gave Alesi a standing ovation, and he offered a poignant apology to Thomas Duane from Manhattan, the only gay member of the Senate, for letting him down two years ago. Many in the room began to cry.

The next day, Cuomo again called the advocates into his office, and this time Roy McDonald, a senator from suburban Albany, entered through a side door and announced he would be the second Republican to support the bill.

Each time, according to observers, Cuomo stood on the sidelines, his face beaming.

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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