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Eliot Spitzer Deserves Some Credit for New York's Gay Marriage Victory

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First-term Gov. Andrew Cuomo is rightly basking in the lion's share of the credit following passage of same-sex marriage legislation by New York's state legislature. Though it can be tempting to attribute this victory to evolution -- an inevitable consequence of the greater cultural acceptance of gay Americans' claims for equal dignity -- it happened now primarily because of Cuomo's masterful handling of the legislature, a task that often bedeviled his predecessors. "Unlike the detached George Pataki, the boorish Eliot Spitzer and the feeble David Paterson," wrote New York Daily News Albany Bureau Chief Kenneth Lovett, "Cuomo found a way to work with a scandal-scarred and credibility-challenged Legislature."

This is not, however, anywhere close to a complete political history of gay marriage legislation in New York. Despite Lovett's analysis, some credit should rightfully be reserved for a former intra-party rival of Cuomo: Eliot Spitzer, the black sheep of recent New York governors.

Spitzer first pledged to fight for same-sex marriage legislation during his 2006 gubernatorial campaign, before polls routinely showed in-state support for equal marriage rights hovering around 60 percent. At the time, most prominent New York Democrats -- including Sens. Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer -- were unwilling to offer explicit endorsements of marriage equality. For Spitzer, a figure who was talked about as a strong contender for national office, this was not the opportunistic choice. "There was no tremendous imperative for him to come and be as forceful as he was, which is a very good sign," longtime gay rights advocate State Sen. Thomas Duane observed in 2006. "He could have come and equivocated."

Spitzer began making good on this pledge in the first months of his term. In April 2007, he outlined his proposed legislation. In June 2007, the New York State Assembly passed the bill. With these first steps, tangible progress had been made. Because of this bold first attempt, the parameters behind working same-sex marriage through the legislature were established.

So what happened to Spitzer's bill? Two words: Joseph Bruno. Spitzer and Bruno, the scandal-plagued former Republican Senate Majority Leader, found themselves at cross-purposes from the very beginning of Spitzer's term. With accusations of corruption and improper surveillance, their relationship may have been the most contentious New York has seen since the days of Roscoe Conkling; before Spitzer's premature leave-taking, the governor's ability to act had already been largely obstructed by Bruno. Although Bruno himself would eventually become an advocate for same-sex marriage, he refused to bring the bill up for a vote in 2007 and let it die in January 2008, two months before Spitzer's resignation.

The legislative history of marriage equality in 2011 could not have been more different. Bruno was long gone, retiring in 2008 before being indicted and convicted on multiple corruption charges. Instead, Cuomo had as a negotiating counterpart current Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a leader as different in technique from Bruno as Mike Mansfield was to Lyndon Johnson. Though Skelos was a "no" vote on passage, he did nothing to obstruct the bill from coming to a vote. "My management style," Skelos told his caucus, "is that I let my members lead." The result of this approach was that four Republican state senators cast affirmative votes for same-sex marriage. That was enough to allow the legislation to pass by a 33-29 margin late last Friday.

Where Spitzer failed, Cuomo succeeded. Even if Cuomo never fulfills the national potential commentators are quick to ascribe him, he has already cemented a permanent place in history. Hopefully, though, there will be room left aside to mention Spitzer's important contributions to what has been a long -- and, still, largely unfinished -- battle for equal rights.

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