WASHINGTON -- The passage of historic legislation legalizing same sex marriage in the state of New York last Friday was owed in large part to a compelling political motivator: money.
Although New York's legislators were already disposed to approving gay marriage because of the more progressive disposition of the state and a major grassroots campaign in support of the bill, LGBT activists from both parties turned to a simple, poignant argument: Lawmakers not only stood to gain the support of well-funded gay-rights supporters if they backed the bill, they would suffer if they opposed it or shied away from the spotlight.
"I didn't come in there saying, 'Do this for me,'" recalled Ken Mehlman, the openly gay former RNC chairman who persuaded Republican lawmakers in Albany that there was not only political support but ideological consistency in backing the bill. "I said, 'Do this for you.' We didn't walk in there saying, 'Do this not only because it is the right thing from a policy perspective.' We were saying, 'It is the right thing to build the party from a political perspective.'"
The politics of gay rights have grown complex in a very short period of time. Once shunned by both parties, only to be picked up as a cause by more progressive-minded Democrats, LGBT issues no longer break down cleanly among the party lines.
Increasingly, a cadre of deep-pocketed Republican donors is joining in the charge. And the enticements they are using to sway lawmakers are not just conservative arguments for civil liberties or public opinion polls that show a generational divide on gay rights, but the promise of contributions or other forms of political support.
These are not quid-pro-quos, necessarily, though New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was fond of telling on-the-fence lawmakers that a yes vote would give them access to deep coffers. Rather, the LGBT community -- often splintered into disparate factions with contrasting strategic visions -- has turned itself into a political heavyweight, equipped with an impassioned grassroots movement to compliment a growing fundraising stream.
"There is no question that we have crossed the line, that now there is a tremendous political downside to either being on the wrong side of this civil rights issue, or even being passive or silent on this particular issue," said Chad Griffin, board president of American Foundation for Equal Rights. "You just look at the stories that were already written on how this will fuel Andrew Cuomo's presidency if he were to run in 2016. He has an instant base of donors."
Certainly, the White House recognizes this donor dynamic, as the President held a LGBT fundraiser in New York City just one day before the historic vote.
Increasingly, however, the defining feature of the gay rights activist community is its bipartisan nature. Some of the biggest donors in the Republican Party were bankrollers of the gay marriage push in New York and, presumably, would write checks for candidates elsewhere who back their worldview.
As The New York Times reported, several weeks before the crucial vote, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's most trusted advisers met with "a group of super-rich Republican donors," successfully convincing them to "win over the deciding Senate Republicans." Attendees included Paul Singer, whose son is gay, and hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Dan Loeb. According to interviews with nearly a dozen activists and operatives involved in the New York same sex marriage push, that anecdote was -- as one source put it -- just one of many critical stepping stones on the path towards the bill's passage. Steven Cohen a hedge fund manager and the founder of SAC Capital, also was persuaded to lend his clout to the campaign.
Last year, the American Foundation for Equal Rights held a major event featuring Singer, Mehlman, and Peter Thiel, the gay billionaire who was an original investor in both PayPal and Facebook. It also included a host of famous politicos, like former Gov. William Weld, Environmental Protection Agency head Christie Todd Whitman and Republican operatives Nicole Wallace and Alex Castellanos. The event provided an early illustration of the type of donor base that was available for the right-minded candidate.
Shortly thereafter, observers got a sense of how that base could be mobilized. The Human Rights Campaign held a fundraiser for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in April to reward her vote to repeal the military's anti-gay Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. Tactically, they held the event in New York.
"We wanted to make sure that Republicans in the state senate saw that we were willing to be financial allies to those who step out," said a source involved in the planning of the fundraiser.
By the time Cuomo was ready to push forward with same sex marriage legislation, the landscape was decidedly different than when the legislature rejected a similar bill in 2009. Conservatives in the state were late to opposition, as was the Catholic Church. When they finally did pledge to campaign against Republicans who supported the measure, their opposition was neutralized.
Mehlman had already gone up to Albany to personal discuss the issue with skeptical lawmakers, emphasizing the philosophical soundness of supporting same sex marriage as well as the personal political benefits. "This is demographically right for the party" he would stress, underscoring that constituent opinion was moving in a very certain direction.
The big time Republican funders, likewise, would make calls of reassurance where need be as would Ted Olson, the Bush v. Gore lawyer who has since played a leading role in arguing the constitutionality of same sex marriage.
And then there was the governor's office.
"Cuomo was able to convince people -- both Democrats and Republicans -- that they were more likely to get reelected if they supported marriage equality than if they didn't," said Richard Socarides, of gay rights organization Equality Matters and the chief aide on LGBT issues in the Clinton White House. "The right-wing threatened these guys and the Catholic Church threatened them."
"Wall Street interests who supported marriage equality were an important counter to that," he said. "So yes, money played a role."
Money was also critical in building the type of grassroots campaign that played a big role in the legislation's passage. More than $2 million was spent on the campaign organized by progressive groups and labor organizations, the "most aggressive field campaign in state legislative history for a gay right issues across this country," according to the Human Rights Campaign's Fred Sainz. Republican donors gave $800,000 of that.
"It built this narrative that this was not only a vote they would take at their peril, but that not supporting it or bottling it up would be to their downside," said one top operative on the campaign.
In the end, all the money, pressure, behind the scenes lobbying and in front of the cameras advocacy was enough to convince four of 32 state senate Republicans to cast yes votes. That was enough.
But in the wake of its passage -- with all the euphoric talk of history's arch and a Cuomo run for the White House at 2016 -- strategy decisions once again revolved around cash.
The Log Cabin Republicans, a pro-gay rights conservative group, immediately launched a fundraising drive to protect those four members who backed its cause. Clarke Cooper, the group's executive director, said it wasn't meant to be a "quid pro quo." The goal -- as with the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell -- was to demonstrate that "it was either extremely beneficial of them to have voted for [the bill] or that there was no negative effect."
The organization's state officials were a bit blunter. "Right now, agenda item number one is making sure that those four courageous Republicans who voted yes are protected," New York Log Cabin Republicans Chairman Gregory T. Angelo told HuffPost's Matt Sledge.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more