How New York almost didn’t legalize same-sex marriage

People celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York outside of Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, where the gay rights movement is considered to have started in 1969.
People celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York outside of Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, where the gay rights movement is considered to have started in 1969.
Louis Lanzano/AP/Shutterstock
People celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York outside of Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, where the gay rights movement is considered to have started in 1969.

How New York almost didn’t legalize same-sex marriage

The threats. The fights. The sacrifices. The behind-the-scenes story of the landmark 2011 law.
June 23, 2019

On June 24, 2011, the New York state Senate passed same-sex marriage and it was signed later that day by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The road leading to the passage of the New York Marriage Equality Act is a long one spanning decades of work, struggle and sacrifice on the part of activists and members of the LGBTQ community. In New York, the legislative history began in 2001, when state Sen. Tom Duane, the first openly gay person elected to the state Senate, introduced a same-sex marriage bill for the first time. He would introduce it each year until 2011, when a bill – albeit not technically his – passed both chambers and was signed into law.

Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, himself a gay legislator, spearheaded the first successful vote on same-sex marriage in either house in Albany, working with Assemblywoman Deborah Glick to pass a bill from then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007. O’Donnell spoke to every member of his conference and delivered color-coded charts every week to then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver tracking where each member stood on the bill. In the end, 85 Democrats voted in favor.

Another vote came in 2009 with legislation from the executive chamber. On the surface, the odds seemed good – Democrats controlled both houses and then-Gov. David Paterson was supportive. The Assembly passed the bill, but it did not come to a vote in the upper chamber before the session adjourned in June. Its fate was uncertain, thanks in part to the infamous Senate coup that month that threw the chamber into disarray. Paterson then convened a special legislative session in December in an attempt to pass the bill before leaving office. The state Senate rejected the measure in a 38-24 vote. Every Republican voted “no,” and Duane said that some Democratic colleagues went back on their word.

In the aftermath, activists and advocates channeled their frustration into the 2010 elections. A political action committee called Fight Back New York was formed to funnel money into key races. Grassroots campaigns targeted those in the state Senate who voted against same-sex marriage: helping Tim Kennedy oust longtime incumbent William Stachowski in a Buffalo Democratic primary; backing Democrat Tony Avella’s successful campaign against Queens Republican Frank Padavan; and replacing Democrat Hiram Monserrate with Jose Peralta in a special election.

Although Democrats lost the majority in the state Senate that year, voters elected Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who forcefully campaigned on the issue of same-sex marriage. Years of work had set the stage for what became the successful 2011 campaign to pass same-sex marriage.

The following interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Early 2011

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Lisa Gore of Scotia, New York, holds a sign during a marriage equality rally at the Capitol in Albany in 2011.
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Lisa Gore of Scotia, New York, holds a sign during a marriage equality rally at the Capitol in Albany in 2011.
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Lisa Gore of Scotia, New York, holds a sign during a marriage equality rally at the Capitol in Albany in 2011.
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Lisa Gore of Scotia, New York, holds a sign during a marriage equality rally at the Capitol in Albany in 2011.
Description: 
Lisa Gore of Scotia, New York, holds a sign during a marriage equality rally at the Capitol in Albany in 2011.
Image Credit: 
Mike Groll/AP/Shutterstock

Katherine Grainger, then-assistant counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo: When Gov. Andrew Cuomo was elected, and he did his first State of the State, he said directly that marriage is going to happen that year. And it was an important proclamation that even though we’d had a failed attempt, we had a new governor who was 100% committed to getting this done.

Marc Solomon, Freedom to Marry’s then-national campaign director: I was on calls every two weeks for starters with the Human Rights Campaign, with Brian Ellner and Ross Levi to talk about advocacy strategy for New York. It was really the three of us. We would get on the phone to talk about Freedom to Marry, HRC and the (Empire State) Pride Agenda and how we were getting ready for a vote in New York. But I’ll also say that none of that was terribly intense until the governor rolled up his sleeves and really took it on, and that was a couple months later in March when the governor made this a serious priority.

David Contreras Turley, then-associate regional field director at the Human Rights Campaign: Starting in January, we built this operation. We hired a deputy, we hired regional organizers in the Hudson Valley, and then New York City, and then the Capital Region, and then Western New York. And we built this huge campaign over time, over six months. We ended up harnessing about 125,000 constituent contacts for what I know is one of the largest grassroots campaigns in terms of numbers, especially in the LGBT civil rights movement.

Brian Ellner, then-senior strategist for New York marriage at the Human Rights Campaign: Initially, the focus was on trying to create a communications campaign that was vastly different from any prior effort, particularly, obviously, the 2009 effort in New York. And also distinct from what we saw happen in California with the infamous Prop. 8, or Prop. Hate, a state where we were expected to win. So that was really the initial focus of the effort, how to talk about this differently and how to bring more people into the fight. So it wasn’t the so called usual suspects and activists and LGBT supporters, but a much broader effort that sort of reached out to all aspects of our society and sort of everyone who makes New York. That sort of was the beginnings of the New Yorkers for Marriage Equality (video) campaign.

March 9 – The meeting

Cuomo holds a Red Room meeting on March 9 with gay rights advocates, lawmakers and other stakeholders to assert his commitment and to gauge support.

Steve Cohen, then-secretary to the governor: That meeting takes place, and the governor basically canvasses everybody, and he says, “Look, I don’t know if we can get this passed, and I’m not doing this unless everybody at this table agrees we should do this, and if you agree we should do this, then I’m going to personally” – you know, he was saying he would personally manage this from the Second Floor. What had happened in 2009 largely was run out of the Legislature. And so we went around the table, he literally went around the table and asked everybody, “Do you think we should try?” And everybody said – Chris Quinn was there, Evan Wolfson was there, Danny O’Donnell was there – every person in that room said, “Yes, let’s go for it.” At that point, Chris Quinn said, “Governor, you say it’s going to be managed out of the Second Floor, but what does that really mean?” At that point, he said, “Well, I’m going to have Steve run this, and he’s going to be in charge.” Frankly, that was the first time I heard that I was running this. I was sitting next to (counsel to the governor) Mylan Denerstein. She looked at me, leaned over and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” sort of mocking my ability to actually manage this.

Tom Duane, then-state senator: The mood was very optimistic at the meeting. The governor made his staff – high-ranking members of his staff – available for us to have access to provide information, to get information, to share information. It was great to sort of have that executive functioning to help lead the effort to get the bill passed.

Ross Levi, then-executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda: When the governor called all the advocates together in the Red Room, that was a really important moment because he said, specifically, that he would play an important leadership role in getting marriage equality done – that he would do what he needed to do and be a strong closer. And at the same time, recognizing that without a strong outside game, that only really the advocates could do that, that the deals he would have to make and the things he would have to do could not be accomplished without that outside work.

Daniel O’Donnell, assemblyman: Cuomo called a meeting – the strangest meeting I’ve ever been to in Albany. There are all these people who were from Washington – “We’ve never been to Albany, but we think …” and I’m like, really? So, this meeting occurred and it was all about how we can get the Senate on board. And the governor, they spend the entire time talking about the Senate, and then he turns to me and says, “What’s going on in the House, Danny?” I was like, “You mean there’s a bicameral system here, governor?”

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing the Marriage Equality Act, with Harry Bronson, Matthew Titone, Daniel O’Donnell, Bob Duffy, Tom Duane and James Alesi.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing the Marriage Equality Act, with Harry Bronson, Matthew Titone, Daniel O’Donnell, Bob Duffy, Tom Duane and James Alesi.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing the Marriage Equality Act, with Harry Bronson, Matthew Titone, Daniel O’Donnell, Bob Duffy, Tom Duane and James Alesi.
Caption: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing the Marriage Equality Act, with Harry Bronson, Matthew Titone, Daniel O’Donnell, Bob Duffy, Tom Duane and James Alesi.
Description: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing the Marriage Equality Act, with Harry Bronson, Matthew Titone, Daniel O’Donnell, Bob Duffy, Tom Duane and James Alesi.
Image Credit: 
The Office of Andrew M. Cuomo

April-May – Working together

Steve Cohen: The first thing we did is we called a meeting – it was actually in New York City – of all the groups that were supportive and all of the governor’s staff that was involved, and Jennifer Cunningham and I ran that meeting. The first point that was really my point to make was, “Look, what happened in 2009, can’t happen here,” which was, it ended up being a lot of well-meaning people speaking their own view of it. I said, “Look, you all are experts in this issue, you’ve been working on it for years, and I’m a newcomer, and I appreciate that. But there can only be one person in charge, and the person who is in charge is the governor, and I speak for the governor, and since I speak for the governor we’re not doing anything unless I say we’re doing it.” Everybody in the room, there was a little bit of a debate about that, but everybody in the room ultimately signed on that that was going to be the way it was going to go.

Bill Smith, then-deputy executive director of the Gill Action Fund: On the activist side, one of the things we realized is we had to have an actual coalition that was stronger than anything we put together before. So we had the (Empire State) Pride Agenda, Freedom to Marry and the Human Rights Campaign all form New Yorkers United for Marriage. And my job with Gill was we were the largest funder of that, and then we went and raised other money for all the work that had to happen because we ran a pretty huge campaign that was both grassroots and lots of media. We hired Jennifer Cunningham from SKDKnickerbocker, who’s a fantastic New York political operative. We staffed up on the lobbying side.

Ross Levi: We literally had a strategy meeting every day to see where we were, particularly on our outside game, but also to share information and strategize in terms of inside strategies as well. For examples of that outside work, we were very excited in terms of engaging those communities which had influence in Albany. So the three biggest examples of those are unions. The (Empire State) Pride Agenda had a Pride in our Union program. We worked with the religious community with a Pride in my Pulpit program. And then the third community was the business world, the corporate world, which we see even more today in terms of taking a lead in anti-discrimination efforts. And we had a Pride in my Workplace program.

Marc Solomon: Weekly meetings at the governor’s office on Third Avenue led by Steve Cohen, his top aide, Alphonso David, who was then the top LGBT person, was also very deeply involved and we would be asked for reports. “What are you doing? What are you doing in the field? What are you doing in the media? What’s the paid media plan look like? Who are your legislative targets?” We would go over every aspect of our campaign plan.

David Contreras Turley: I think it was the first time – first successful time – we had all these groups coming in – the money groups, the groups of volunteers – and forming this New Yorkers (United for Marriage). I mean, that was really something that was unique, a model that we have for the first time. Yes, we’ve been working together, but they have never been as coordinated as they had been in the New York campaign.

Growing anxiety

The same-sex marriage bill that came out of Cuomo’s office was not introduced in the Assembly until June 14.

Marc Solomon: Cuomo announces he’s going to drive a marriage bill in March and then we’re doing all this stuff but nothing in Albany was really happening. And the governor had a plan, but it was nerve-wracking because no bill had been introduced and we were like three weeks out from the end of the session. It’s like, what’s happening? What’s happening? Nothing’s happening. Nothing’s happening. So there was a lot of anxiety. King Cuomo was like, “We have a plan.” And we supported that, but it was like, when do we actually get started on the lawmaking?

“The governor’s staff calls me, curses at me, screams at me, threatens me, tells me I’ll never work again.” – Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell

Daniel O’Donnell: April, there’s no bill. May, there’s no bill. It’s the end of May. We finish at the end of June. The speaker, Shelly, really wanted to move a bill, and I put in a bill – same exact working as the previous bill – and the governor goes apeshit. The governor’s staff calls me, curses at me, screams at me, threatens me, tells me I’ll never work again, like something I’ve never witnessed before, because they only wanted it to be a program bill. And I wasn’t against having a program bill, but in order to have a program, well, you have to send it to me. And they didn’t.

Marc Solomon: There were some real ups and downs in that period. First, we needed to review the legislation and approve it. (Cuomo) wanted the key groups to meet. First, he wanted to get a thumbs-up about whether or not to – no, actually the first thing that happened when we got there was right as I got to Albany, he was having a press event with the Democrats and three of the recalcitrant Democrats came out in support of the marriage bill, and so by then the only person who was opposed was Rubén Díaz Sr., who we knew was going to be opposed forever. So that was day one. And then I believe Cuomo showed us – first he wanted to get a thumbs-up on whether we agreed to move the bill together. So that happened. We talked about it. We agreed that it was time to go.

Ross Levi: I remember specifically after the Red Room, the press was doing a gaggle or a scrum and questioning us and questioning us. And I remember the question was, “Are you demanding a vote?” The press was sort of obsessed at this point with the idea of the advocates demanding a vote. They wanted us to be saying, “How come there’s not a vote scheduled?” And I remember specifically saying, “We want a winning vote.”

Early June – Getting the Democrats

Four Democrats who voted against the bill in 2009 remained in the state Senate – Rubén Díaz Sr., Shirley Huntley, Joseph Addabbo Jr. and Carl Kruger. Supporters needed to get every Democrat, with the exception of the socially conservative Díaz, in order for the bill to have a chance of passing. Three announced their support on June 13.

Brian Ellner: (Addabbo) literally told me like, “If you get me more mail, I’m a ‘yes’ vote.” So of course, I immediately called Marty Rouse from HRC and I was like, “We need to flood his district. I mean, my view is we need to bury him in mail.” We had these heroic volunteers in supermarkets and outside shopping centers and in town centers with clipboards. I think he said it went from like (a ratio of) 2-to-1 against to 3-to-1 in favor.

Tom Duane: Shirley would have voted “yes” in 2009, but the bill was failing and she did not want to be a flip-flopper. If I had needed her vote, if it was one vote that would have taken us over the finish line in 2009, she would have voted “yes.” She changed her mind, she just didn’t want to tell people she changed her mind because she’d been so strong in the public about being opposed to it. But I knew for quite a while that she was a “yes” vote. And I actually told the advocates to please stop bugging her, that they shouldn’t worry about her. I think if you asked her, she would say that I probably changed it because she knew me. And her husband told my partner that also.

“I said to the governor, “I’m not sure I know we have all the Democrats lined up.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s my problem, not your problem, go on the show.’” – Steve Cohen, then-secretary to the governor

Steve Cohen: One morning I actually came into the office and (Cuomo) said, “I know how we’re going to get this resolved.” I said, “What are we going to do?” He said, “You’re going to go on ‘The Fred Dicker Show.’” “OK, what am I going to say on Dicker?” He said, “You’re going to go on Dicker and you are going to say that the Democrats are all lined up and that the problem is the Republicans. And that Dean (Skelos) had said it early in the session that he would let it go to the floor if all the Democrats were lined up, but now he’s backpedaling.” I said to the governor, “I’m not sure I know we have all the Democrats lined up.” He said, “Well, that’s my problem, not your problem, go on the show.” Right after that, this was mid-morning, the governor called John Sampson and those senators who were on the fence, and he said to them, “You now don’t have a choice. You are about to be blamed because this notion of you’re going to do it privately with me, but not do it publicly is going to become the excuse that Dean uses not to get this passed.” He said, “He will let it go to the floor, but only if he knows all the Democrats are there, so I’ll see you at noon.” They said, “Why are you going to see me at noon?” He said, “Because we’re going to hold a press conference, or press reveal, and we’re going to tell the reporters you’re all on board.” None of them wanted to do it, but every one of them showed up, reluctantly, and suddenly all the Democrats were lined up. The whole thing shifted.

Ross Levi: One of the talking points that was often used against us was, “How can you be asking me as Senate Republican to be in favor of this? You don’t even have the Democrats.” So that allowed that talking point to be taken off the table.

Getting the Republicans

Four Republican state senators ultimately voted “yes” – James Alesi, Roy McDonald, Stephen Saland and Mark Grisanti.

Bill Smith: Dean Skelos, the majority leader at the time, said in a speech that if the votes were there, he would consider putting marriage equality on the floor. And a lot of people, I remember, were telling us, “Oh god, he’s lying, that’s b.s.,” but we took him at his word. And we had people. We had hired a couple of lobbyists, actually, specifically just to work with Republican senators who we sent to their events. The four Republicans who ended up voting for marriage, we did not participate in their elections against them. And we made sure that people knew it.

David Contreras Turley: When (Lady Gaga) performed in Buffalo, I remember she encouraged all of her constituents, all her little monsters – “Your Sen. Mark Grisanti is debating whether or not to pass marriage. I really encourage everyone to call their Sen. Mark Grisanti.” And then his offices got blown up by thousands of young constituents that went to this Lady Gaga concert.

Marc Solomon: I remember finding Steve Saland’s rabbi who said, “Look, I will talk to him. I will not tell you what he tells me, but I promise you I will talk to him about this.” So it was at that level of who could actually move this person, who would they listen to. And couples and families were the core of it.

Stephen Saland, then-state senator: Really, it was the end result of meeting with and speaking with lots and lots of people on both sides of the issue. Reading many, many things that were sent to me, as well as doing some research on my own and being done for me by my staff. It sounds a lot easier in the telling than it was in the arriving. And I was constantly being bombarded. We had days where we had to put the office phone on answering, or we couldn’t get anything done. And I’d return home and there was a very staunch advocate with my wife, who would constantly be lobbying me. So it really never stopped.

Mark Grisanti, then-state senator: When I was running for office, it never really came up, the issue of marriage equality. I talked to fellow senators on both sides of the aisle, and it was amazing to me how some senators didn’t even want to confront the issue, they were just like, “No, no, no, no,” that like it was taboo. And I really didn't understand where they were coming from, until later on in the process. But I had the opportunity, at least, to say, “Well, if I'm not going to get a straight answer from my own colleagues, I'm going to start doing the research myself.” And I would research various states on what they did with regards to whether it was civil unions or the word marriage itself, and seeing how that works, meeting with people on both sides of the issue. In particular, I remember a meeting was set up for me with an LGBTQ community group in Buffalo, in the Allentown area. And I sat there for at least a couple of hours, and listened to everybody's story. Some of the things started clicking in my mind. I wasn't taking it seriously enough, but this is a really serious issue.

James Alesi, then-state senator: I would not divulge how I was going to vote. Although, I did say, “I know how I’m going to vote. I’m just not going to say it right now.” And I said that to the governor, and I said that to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. The reason I didn’t do that was because I wanted other people that felt like we need to pass it to say that they were going to go for it. And nobody would do it.

June 13 – Alesi announces his support

James Alesi: I called (Cuomo) and said, “I want to come down and talk. I think I’m ready to make an announcement.” I came down. I talked to the governor, and I just said, “I am going to vote for it. I want you to be the first one to know.” Well, he said, “There’s some people in the other room that might want to hear that from you.” I didn’t know he had just finished meeting with them. I went into the room, and I saw so many of the people that over the last six or eight weeks during session had called on me and some of my colleagues. I know Sen. Duane was there, people from the (Empire State) Pride Agenda. I think that he told them that somebody wanted to come in. There was this raucous clapping and applause and everything else. I wasn’t prepared for that. I was very moved. When things settled down, I said, “I just want to do something. I’m telling you, I am voting. But before I do that, I want to apologize to all of you and especially to Sen. Duane” – because he was a colleague. Then we went out. News media from all over the world was waiting outside.

Brian Ellner: I spent a good amount of time with Sen. Alesi. So before he walked into the room, I felt pretty good about him and his commitment and where he would ultimately end up. But certainly when the governor brought him into that room, it was a huge. It was a seismic moment.

June 14 – McDonald announces his support

Roy McDonald, then-state senator: I didn’t want to lie to people, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t want to do it at the last moment. To tell you the truth, I can’t remember when (I decided to vote “yes”). I do know that some of the people who had the most influence on me were the people who are the local people in the greater Capital District that would show up with their friends and show up with their family members. And these are just good folk, and they’re basically saying, “It’s not right. Let us have our own dignity and our own ability and have our own life.” I’ve got no problem with that.

Bill Smith: He is such a good soul. He came at the issue as a grandparent with a grandchild with special needs and talked about how they were treated differently. But when we saw him in the room there, that was a big deal because he was very solid. He knew what he was going to do. And he walked out of there and then went to the press area in the Capitol and told his hometown newspaper that day. So that was when you started to feel like, wow, this thing really can happen.

Behind the scenes with Saland and Grisanti

Steve Cohen: What the governor did was he had a meeting with Grisanti and he met with Saland, and we thought we had both of them. He would sit with them privately and he would say, “Look, I’m not going to put you in a position where you have a 32nd vote. So if anybody backs out at all, I will give you your vote back, you have my word.” And they would shake hands. Saland leaves, Grisanti leaves. They come back from the weekend and Grisanti, having gone home to the Buffalo area, comes back, meets with the governor privately, and says, “I can’t vote ‘yes.’” Without Grisanti we would have been 32, but not 33, and the governor made a point of saying there are going to be 33. The governor looks at him – I remember it was raining out, it was like a stormy night – and the governor says to Grisanti, “I believe in my word and I believe in honor. And you and I shook hands and you said you’d be there for me as long as I had 33 votes, and yet you’re walking away. That’s fine, but I’ll never forget it.” Grisanti walked out rattled. Rattled. We then saw Grisanti underneath my office window sort of pacing and chain-smoking, not knowing what to do.

Mark Grisanti: I was making some phone calls and I was telling people, “I think I’m gonna go for this legislation.” And that evening, without me telling anybody, and the governor didn’t know this, which way I was going to vote, but it kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. And I didn’t say this in my floor speech because I didn’t want to make it about me, but what hit me was how selfish I was being. I would ask myself, “Why would you not vote for this piece of legislation?” And I was sitting there, up all night, and something inside of me said, “You know why you’re not voting for this piece of legislation? There’s your fear of political retribution, your fear of reprisal, your fear of what you’re going to lose. And that should not be the reason why you are there.” And it brought me back to when I first started in January, and how my Republican colleagues didn’t want to talk about it. They didn't want to lose their political lines, whether it's the Conservative line or the Republican line and not getting endorsed again. And I said to myself, “You know what, I can't be that way.” I kind of give (Cuomo) the credit of basically having myself sit there and meditate and think.

James Alesi: As I remember, (Grisanti) announced all three ways. He’d say, “I’m going to do it.” “No, I’m not going to do it.” “Yes, I am going to do it.” So there were four people in the mix there that were Republicans that all had kind of a different reason for doing it. I know that Mark, I can’t put words in Mark’s mouth and I respect the fact that he has to be judicious about this, but that’s pretty much how I remember it. But he did change his mind, but he vocally said “no,” and then “yes,” and then “no” over the course of a couple of days before he said “yes” again.

Stephen Saland: The governor and I actually had a conversation at one point where he said that he wasn’t sure that there was a 33rd vote, and I told him that I would be the 32nd vote. That was pretty much it. If he could find the 33rd, that would be appreciated. But I was the 32nd vote.

Late June – The religious exemption

Stephen Saland: I went to Sen. Skelos weeks before the vote to tell him that if the bill was restructured somewhat, I would probably want to support the bill. And at that point he asked if I would meet with Gov. Cuomo and in effect negotiate with Gov. Cuomo. Initially, I did that, I believe for one meeting, by myself, accompanied by counsel. I then decided this impacted the entire conference and I thought I should have at least someone, another member, there with me. It was decided that Sen. (Kemp) Hannon and Sen. (Andrew) Lanza would join me. And the three of us had a number of sessions. Since there was really only a smattering of support in the conference, much of the opposition turned on religious belief, and it was incumbent upon me to make sure that even though this would not be accepted by the religious community on the whole – there are elements within the community that would accept it – that there were exceptions that prevented any subsequent problems down the road.

Alphonso David, then-deputy secretary and assistant counsel for civil rights to Cuomo: That is one of the most significant sticking pieces, I think, in the negotiations. And I feel very strongly and I think everyone on the team felt strongly that we could not allow a modification of the public accommodations law in New York because that would be effectively enshrining discrimination into our law. So we rejected that. Instead, we agreed to put into the statute a reference to the First Amendment, essentially saying that nothing in the statute will contravene the First Amendment. And that came at the end, when we were negotiating the bill, in the final few days.

“All of these protesters were screaming and they had no idea that I actually had the bill language in my tights.” – Katherine Grainger, then-assistant counsel to Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Daniel O’Donnell: A religious exemption bill is pretty benign, because it says that New York can’t supersede the U.S. Constitution, which is kind of stupid because we can never supersede the U.S. Constitution, but some of the Republican senators who were going to be “yes” votes wanted that as cover to explain why they went from a “no” to a “yes.” So I was in a bind because in the event that somehow, along the way, that got interpreted in a way that was not what we intended, I could be sabotaging the whole thing. So generally, when I have something that affects our community, I go to other LGBT members, openly LGBT members in my house, and I ask them to join. “Do you want to go on this bill with me?” I didn’t do that that time because it was up to me. So I said, “This is up to you, Danny.”

Katherine Grainger: I had to move the bill from the executive chamber down to Danny O’Donnell’s office to get him to review it. And at that point, there were tons of protesters, et cetera. And so I actually put the bill language in my tights, under my dress, to walk it across the Capitol. So knowing all of these protesters were screaming and they had no idea that I actually had the bill language in my tights.

Getting it to the Senate floor

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the passage of the historic marriage equality act on the Senate floor following the vote.
Alt Text: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the passage of the historic marriage equality act on the Senate floor following the vote.
Title Text: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the passage of the historic marriage equality act on the Senate floor following the vote.
Caption: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the passage of the historic marriage equality act on the Senate floor following the vote.
Description: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the passage of the historic marriage equality act on the Senate floor following the vote.
Image Credit: 
The Office of Andrew M. Cuomo

Brian Ellner: It became really important to not lose the momentum and to continue telling good stories. I remember scrambling to try to get people to come up to Albany. And I think Cynthia Nixon came up toward the end, Sean Avery came up and others who have been part of the campaign. We got cars to come out because we just needed stories to keep the momentum. And there was a real feeling of a sort of lack of control at that point, because we had sort of done the hard work of activating all these districts and getting the mail and getting the emails – running a really disciplined communication campaign. And it just became sort of a waiting game. No one really knew when the vote would ultimately happen.

Ross Levi: I remember specifically around Father’s Day, that was toward the end, and marriage wasn’t done. And we had some concerns that legislators were going to go back to their churches on Father’s Day and be hearing bad things. So we did a campaign where we got some famous fathers of LGBT people to speak up and Anne Hathaway’s dad, for example, spoke up and said this is something we needed to get done. I think it was either the current or past commissioner of the NFL stood up for his gay son and talked about it. He happened to be from Buffalo, so that was good too.

Steve Cohen: There were a couple hiccups along the way, one of which was at first we’re told (Carl) Kruger can’t be there to vote. I remember it was John Sampson and (consultant) Mel Lowe, came to my office to say, “Hey, we’ve got a problem,” saying “Kruger can’t be there. He’s got a court appearance in his criminal case in the Southern District of New York. He needs to be before the judge.” I don’t think these guys knew I was formerly a federal prosecutor under that office. I called down to the chief of the criminal division – a guy named Rich Zabel who used to be my trial partner and is to this day my neighbor – and I asked Rich, “What is this with Kruger needing to be in court?” He said, “Give me a minute, I’ll call you back.” He called me back in five minutes, and he said, “Kruger doesn’t need to be in court. There’s no court appearance, and by the way his appearance is waived until the day of trial when they pick a jury.” We called back Sampson and Melvin Lowe and a couple of other members of the leadership and the governor basically ripped into them that the games have to stop, the games now have to stop, and either the next day or that night it finally went to the floor.

James Alesi: I can close my eyes and see myself sitting in that room as if it were yesterday. I know there was a lot of agitation that the majority of the (Republican conference) members were feeling because, A, they didn’t want to have to do this and, B, they were being told now that there were enough votes to pass it, so let’s get it out of the way so it wouldn’t be an issue during the upcoming campaign. It was many hours. We were many hours in conference. Pretty much everybody in the conference had a chance to speak, or at least reply or comment on what somebody else might have said. While it was going on, I think that the mechanics of how the vote would take place were being negotiated too.

Steve Cohen: We were fairly confident we had the votes, but there was an understanding that it would be a voice vote and that the Democrats would not make speeches attacking the Republicans, and Skelos’ counsel’s point was – her name was Diane Burman – what Diane said was, and what Dean said was, “Look, we’ll let it go, but we’re not going to use this as an opportunity for these people to sort of malign us. We’re doing right by this and we expect that they will do right for us as well.” There was an understanding with Sampson that, other than Tom Duane, who would introduce the bill, Sen. Díaz, who everybody knew was going to rant about whatever he was going to rant about, and Stephen Saland, who wanted to explain his vote, no one was going to speak on the bill.

Bill Smith: The big tell for us was we saw the night before (the vote), we had seen Sen. Stephen Saland’s wife at the Capitol and thought, “This is not normal.” You have state senators’ spouses showing up for votes? We said, “This means that this is likely to happen.” We sent word to the governor’s office that she was there. The governor spent time with her and told her what a great guy her husband was.

Stephen Saland: My wife and I are extremely close, there’s nothing we don’t share. She came up because I had told her at that point that I was voting “yes.” I really didn’t tell anyone. I think my wife was the first person. I think I might have told a member of my staff as well. And that was just a few days before the vote. I never went public with it. My wife wouldn’t be there watching me vote “no.”

June 24 – The vote

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo smiles and waves in the 2015 New York City Pride.
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo smiles and waves in the 2015 New York City Pride.
Title Text: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo smiles and waves in the 2015 New York City Pride.
Caption: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo smiles and waves in the 2015 New York City Pride.
Description: 
Gov. Andrew Cuomo smiles and waves in the 2015 New York City Pride.
Image Credit: 
The Office of Andrew M. Cuomo

State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos announced the day of the vote. The bill would come to the floor.

Mark Grisanti: The day of the vote, I think I only went up to Saland, and I said, “Look, if you’re voting for this, I’m going to vote for this.” And he had a big smile on his face, he was happy I came around. I went to Sen. Alesi, and he was like, “Man, you were back and forth so many times, but it’s good to have you on board.” Looking back on it now, it was probably one of the best votes I’ve ever taken, in the sense of doing the right thing and coming to terms with myself.

Ross Levi: I think Liz Benjamin tweeted at that time, I think attributed to me, that only in Albany can you pass an amendment to a bill that doesn’t exist. Because the Senate passed the religious exemption before it passed the marriage bill. So it passed an exemption to a law that didn’t exist.

Daniel O’Donnell: There was a mess up on the floor because there was an agreement made between both sides that the Republicans who had changed their minds would be allowed to speak on the bill, and not every Democrat. And Sen. Duane got up and started to make a speech and members of the Democratic conference stormed off the floor because they felt that they should have been allowed to speak. But in the end, it passed. And that was June 24. I know that date because it was effective on July 24, which is my husband’s birthday.

Bill Smith: Tom Duane did a speech, and the Republican senators did a speech. And a lot of the Democratic members who had been pro-marriage for a long time were kind of hacked off that they weren’t going to be able to speak. And one of them, Kevin Parker, started to leave. There was this whole very kind of frenzied commotion to keep everybody on the floor.

“I had to have my house surrounded by the sheriff’s department, because I had people calling up and sending nasty stuff.” – then-state Sen. Roy McDonald 

Steve Cohen: Suddenly things start getting off track and Díaz is speaking beyond his allotted time, and (then-Lt. Gov. Robert) Duffy says, “Senator with all due respect, we’re going to be here very late, I have to cut you off, because we have” – I can’t remember what the number was, it was something like – “23 people speaking on the bill.” And it was like my heart falls into my stomach. I go find John Sampson. I said, “John, you know we had a deal.” And John said, “I can’t control my members. What do you want from me? They have a right to speak.” I actually went to a caucus room off the floor and called the governor and I said, “We may have a problem.” And he said matter of factly to me, “Well, I’m down here,” meaning the Second Floor in his office, “and you’re up there. Go fix it.” I realized the conversation is now over. Mylan (Denerstein) and I trek and we find John Sampson and we pull him off the floor. I explain to John that this would be the biggest mistake of his political life, little did I know that a year later he would be indicted. I said, “This bill is either going to pass and you’re going to control your members, or I am going to spend the rest of my professional life figuring out ways to make sure that your political career is over and nobody’s going to be able to control me because I’m leaving the Second Floor within the next couple of months, and John, you don’t want me out in the world as your enemy.” It was probably a little more colorful, and I remember Mylan at that point put her hand on John’s shoulder, looked at him, and said, “John, you do know he’s the biggest asshole in the world.” And with that Mylan and I walked away. And the next thing we knew – we couldn’t believe it worked – the votes started, and it passed.

Tom Duane: Everybody should (have been) able to speak as long as they wanted to on the bill. It was a bill that a lot of people felt very passionately about. And I actually think it was a case where some of the passionate speeches in favor of the bill might even have persuaded Republicans to vote “yes,” even though they had previously thought they were going to vote “no.” Because that’s the point of having a debate. So I was very disappointed that there was no debate.

Roy McDonald: The day I voted was the day of my daughter’s – you know when they have the family dinner before the wedding? I missed the dinner, and I told that to Cuomo (laughs), “I missed the dinner and I’m paying for it!” I said, “My daughter gets married tomorrow.” And I said, “You realize I’ve got three daughters and I pretty much almost missed all three of those dinners” – I made the wedding, thank God – “because I had to work.” So that’s the fun part. The sad part is I had to have my house surrounded by the sheriff’s department. They were patrolling, sitting in my driveway, because I had people calling up and sending nasty stuff.

Brian Ellner: I got a call on my phone from Fred Sainz, who at the time was the chief communications officer at the Human Rights Campaign. He wasn’t in Albany, he was watching on CNN, and he said, “We did it.” He said, “There are thousands of people who are assembling at Stonewall.” It was sort of like a spontaneous eruption of people poised to celebrate. I was just kind of standing in a hallway and it was like, wow, this is really happening, and there are thousands of people who are on the streets whose lives are going to change. It was really an amazing moment to get that call. I also very desperately wanted to be back in Manhattan at that moment. I kind of wanted to ask the governor for use of the helicopter.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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