Friday, July 01, 2011

Behind N.Y. Gay Marriage, an Unlikely Mix of Forces

Given that this is an email list focused on education reform, you might wonder why I'm leading with the news that the NY State Senate last night passed legislation to make NY the 6th state to legalize gay marriage.  The answer (other than my being VERY psyched about this great news) is the lesson for we reformers: if you want to achieve your political goals, you gotta play the game, and play it hard, to win. 


A year and a half ago in Dec. 2009, advocates for gay marriage in NY made powerful moral arguments, etc. – and got their asses handed to them in a lopsided 38-24 defeat in the state Senate.  So why did it pass last night, thanks to a 9-vote swing?  If you think it's because 9 NY state legislators changed their actual views on this issue, or because public sentiment has shifted massively in NYS in 18 months, please contact me, as I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.  Folks, the real reason it passed is because gay marriage advocates, after their defeat, stepped up their political game, raised A TON of money, hired the best lobbyists, and overwhelmed their opponents politically.  Funny, but I wrote this section before I saw on the NYT web site this article (which I assume will be on the front page of tomorrow's NYT) confirming what I wrote:

In the 35th-floor conference room of a Manhattan high-rise, two of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's most trusted advisers held a secret meeting a few weeks ago with a group of super-rich Republican donors.

Over tuna and turkey sandwiches, the advisers explained that New York's Democratic governor was determined to legalize same-sex marriage and would deliver every possible Senate vote from his own party.

Would the donors win over the deciding Senate Republicans? It sounded improbable: top Republican moneymen helping a Democratic rival with one of his biggest legislative goals.

But the donors in the room — the billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, joined by the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Daniel Loeb — had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure. And they were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views.

Within days, the wealthy Republicans sent back word: They were on board. Each of them cut six-figure checks to the lobbying campaign that eventually totaled more than $1 million.

Steve Cohen, the No. 2 in Mr. Cuomo's office and a participant in the meeting, began to see a path to victory, telling a colleague, "This might actually happen."

The story of how same-sex marriage became legal in New York is about shifting public sentiment and individual lawmakers moved by emotional appeals from gay couples who wish to be wed.

But, behind the scenes, it was really about a Republican Party reckoning with a profoundly changing power dynamic, where Wall Street donors and gay-rights advocates demonstrated more might and muscle than a Roman Catholic hierarchy and an ineffective opposition.

…By the time a Catholic bishop from Brooklyn traveled to Albany last week to tell undecided senators that passing same-sex marriage "is not in keeping with the will of their people," it was clear the church had been outmaneuvered by the highly organized same-sex marriage coalition, with its sprawling field team and, especially, its Wall Street donors.

"In many ways," acknowledged Dennis Poust, of the New York State Catholic Conference, "we were outgunned. That is a lot to overcome."

Would it be nice if it weren't this way?  If politicians did the right thing because it's the right thing to do?  If our political system weren't corrupted by money? Of course!  But to quote my 9th grade geometry teacher, "Don't let what you want change what is."


I've gone off on this rant before, but I'll say it again: if we're going to fix our educational system, which is controlled by government and therefore by politicians, we are going to need to do more than build and operate great schools that prove what even the most disadvantaged kids can achieve.  That's necessary but, contrary to my original (highly naïve) beliefs, it's not sufficient.  The system won't change just because someone comes along and demonstrates a better way – no matter how much better.  It's working too well for the adults, who of course vote and have a union, and thus (until recently anyway) have a stranglehold on politicians.  WE MUST BREAK THIS STRANGLEHOLD! 


The good news is that we've made enormous strides, thanks to the courageous leadership of President Obama, Arne Duncan, and many others, and organizations like Democrats for Education Reform (and many others) – but overall, we're still outmanned and outgunned 100:1.  That's better than the 1,000:1 that it was a couple of years ago, but we're still huge underdogs and need to step up our political game A LOT.


What does this mean?  It means if you're a philanthropist or charter school board member, you need to dedicate to advocacy at least 10% of whatever you're giving to grassroots programs.  It means if you're running a school, you need to organize your parents into a political force.  It means if you're a teacher, you need to show up at political fundraisers and ask politicians tough questions.  You get the idea…


Behind N.Y. Gay Marriage, an Unlikely Mix of Forces

Andrew M. Cuomo at the bill-signing Friday with Thomas K. Duane, second from right, the Senate's only openly gay member. More Photos »
Published: June 25, 2011

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