Someday, someone will write a book recounting the behind-the-scenes intrigue in 2011, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo maneuvered to get marriage equality passed by the same state senators who had rejected it in 2009. Governor Cuomo may not be gay, but he will forever be a hero in gay history.
The governor began by learning as much as he could about each and every senator who had voted “no” the first time around. He knew which senator had a wife with a beloved gay relative. Which senator might be receptive to the personal stories of gay couples who longed to marry. Which senator would base his decision solely on the level of response he received from his own constituents, and which one only considered the statewide polls. Governor Cuomo is said to have watched and rewatched videotape of the first unsuccessful vote on marriage equality, studying the facial expressions of the “no” votes to see which members looked unhappy or not decisive when they cast it, and then reached out to form personal relationships with them. There were dozens of phone calls, meetings at his office and meals at the governor’s mansion. “I am more of an asset than the vote will be a liability.” He told the senators. “I will help you.”
Next, Cuomo persuaded the same-sex marriage advocates to change their tactics. During the first vote, when Cuomo was serving as Attorney General, there had been five different advocacy groups, all giving him contradictory advice on whom to lobby and what tack to take. Cuomo united them into a single group with a new name, New Yorkers United For Marriage, and a new hand-picked leader, Jennifer Cunningham, while promising to remain personally involved in directing their efforts.
Where before the pro-marriage groups had been more of a blunt instrument, protesting outside of legislators’ offices, taking an adversarial posture in the press, Cuomo persuaded the activists, however reluctantly, to let him use New Yorkers United For Marriage more like a precision tool. Though they were less visible, behind the scenes there was a stepped up effort to win constituent support, including amassing post cards addressed to on-the-fence senators from thousands of residents in their own districts, all expressing support for marriage equality. At the moment of decision, with the undecided legislators teetering between conscience and politics, Cuomo had New Yorkers United for Marriage send those constituent messages as a lever to tip vacillating politicians over into the “yea” column.
Cuomo also outflanked the Catholic hierarchy, always one of the most obdurate stumbling blocks to marriage equality. The second time around, the vote on same-sex marriage was cleverly scheduled in the same timeframe as a gathering of bishops in Seattle that New York’s formidable Archbishop Dolan was scheduled to attend. So unlike the first vote, Dolan could not travel to Albany or deliver a fire and brimstone condemnation of the bill from a New York pulpit. Archbishop Dolan still railed against same-sex marriage as “immoral” and an “ominous threat” but he was forced to do so by phone in a long distance radio interview. “In many ways we were outgunned” admitted Dennis Poust, of the New York Catholic Conference, “That is a lot to overcome.”
Finally, in what may have been his most brilliant move, Cuomo harnessed the power of Wall Street. Billionaire Paul Singer, founder of Elliott Management, and close friend of Rudy Giuliani, is a well-known big bucks Republican donor, not the first place a Democratic governor would normally look for help. But Cuomo had learned Singer has a gay son who had recently been married in one of those fabulous upscale weddings of the rich and famous – a wedding that had to be held in Massachusetts.
Daniel Loeb, head of Third Point, may have earned Cuomo’s notice when he attended a fundraiser hosted by recently out former chair of the RNC, Ken Mehlman. The event was held for AFER – the American Foundation for Equal Rights. That’s the group that led to Theodore Olson and David Boies challenging California’s Prop 8.
I’m not sure what sympathetic vibrations Clifford Asness, the head of the AQR Capital put out, but whatever the signal was Gov Cuomo sensed it. He invited these three top-tier movers and shakers over for turkey sandwiches and a marriage equality sales pitch. He had a plan, but it required their backing. He needed to be able to go to the wavering lawmakers he had identified, pull out a checkbook and say: If you are afraid of losing donors because of this vote, I will replace their money. I am asking you to make this vote a vote of conscience.
Two days after the meeting, all three men cut six figure checks. By the time of the vote, they had anted up over a million dollars. If Governor Cuomo had not been able to secure the help of Wall Street, it is doubtful same-sex marriages would be legal in New York today. If this seems a long way to come to talk about Wall Street and the LGBT community, it is only because I wanted to demonstrate to you how important having sympathetic moneyed friends in high places is to the gay agenda. We are living in a time when Wall Street is about as popular as pickled herring, so your inclination might be to say, “Investment bankers? We’re better off without them.” The Cuomo story shows that’s really not true.
Cuomo went hat in hand to sympathetic straight donors because there was no list of LGBT high rollers to call in 2011, but that is quickly changing. They are on the ladder and moving up. Last year a group of LGBT Wall Street employees formed a new professional group, Out on the Street, to see what they could do to speed up the climb. Out On The Street describes itself as the first LGBT leadership organization for Wall Street, by Wall Street. This Wednesday, at Bank of America’s World Headquarters in New York City, they will hold their second annual Summit. According to their website http://outonthestreet.org/summits/2012-summit/ this year’s gathering will focus on “The role that LGBT support plays in the conduct of business and the role Wall Street plays in the larger fight for LGBT equality” And now you understand why I told you the Cuomo story, because Wall Street can take even the most important topic and make an ordinary person’s eyes glaze over trying to explain it.
This is no gathering of pawns. Sixty-eight percent of attendees at last year’s Summit were Managing Directors or above. One hundred seventy of them were Vice Presidents. As you would expect, attendance is by invitation only, but if you are gay and you work for one of the member organizations, which includes Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and most of the country’s big banks, you can request an invitation at email@example.com.
While a large part of me is glad I do not have to sit through the speeches and the workshops at the Out on the Street Summit, (you’d be more likely to find me out front with the Occupy Wall Street protesters,) an even larger part of me is glad the people in that room are having those discussions. Wall Street support could be an invaluable weapon in the LGBT Equality arsenal. Fine to send David out with a good sturdy slingshot. Much better to put the checkbook option in his other pocket.
So next time you are grumbling about the bastards of Wall Street, reserve a warm thought for members of Out on the Street. Because like it or not, money changes everything.