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Authored by Christiane Montuori on Friday, July 1, 2011 at 10:54 AM | Add the first comment!
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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s extraordinary success in steering the gay marriage bill through the state legislature contains lessons not only for Governors and Presidents (are you watching, Barack?), but also for each of us trying to make progress on issues we care about in organizational life.

Cuomo had two inter-related problems. He had to secure a handful of Senate Republicans to get to the 32 votes he needed to pass the bill through the 62-member Republican-controlled Senate.  And, second, he had Catholic Senators, both Republicans and Democrats, who had both religious and political concerns about offending the Church, which was staunchly opposed.

At this point, the merits were irrelevant. Any Senator could make the most compelling arguments on either side of the bill. Many had taken positions in their campaign. Many had voted on the bill when it was defeated in 2009 by a Democratic-controlled State Senate.

First, Cuomo made enacting a gay marriage bill a public measure of his success (again, are you watching, Barack?). By putting himself on the line, he made it harder for wavering Senate Democrats to vote against the bill.  No legislator wants to embarrass a Governor of his or her own party. Governors can be too helpful politically to risk that.

Second, Cuomo needed to take the multi-headed mélange of gay rights organizations whose disorganization, fractiousness, mixed messages, and general inability to play well together had contributed significantly, in Cuomo’s view at least, to the defeat of the measure in 2009. Cuomo called them together and told them that this time the campaign to win the passage of the bill was going to be directed by him, not them. He would call the shots, define the strategy, and negotiate the details, and all of that that was the price of his making it a priority. No consensus building here. Cuomo was willing to be an authoritative bully when it was necessary to do so.

Third, Cuomo, himself a Catholic, knew he had to undermine the Church’s opposition. So he rolled up his sleeves and compromised, getting personally involved (again, Barack, pay attention!) meeting with Republican Senators to actually draft language to exempt religious institutions from the requirement that they honor gay marriages and to prevent them from getting penalized in any way for not doing so.  Meeting with the Governor himself to draft language forced the legislative participants to declare their concerns and gave Cuomo the opportunity to address them. He listened to their stories without judgment, and then gave the work back to them: “Tell us what you are worried about on the impact of this bill for religious institutions and we’ll fix it.” 

Fourth, and most artfully, Cuomo mobilized fat cat Republicans who would not only help legitimize the defecting Republicans Cuomo needed to win passage, but more importantly, would bankroll those defectors in their re-election campaigns to minimize the chances that they would be defeated as a result of their vote either in a Republican primary or by a third party insurgency in the general election. Cuomo know that it was unlikely that Republican donors, even if they supported gay marriage, would want to help the Democrat Governor win a milestone victory. So, instead of making the argument on the gay rights merits, he went first to Paul Singer, a billionaire with access to Republican donors whose son is gay.  Others came along after Singer, out of loyalty to their fellow fat cat and by Cuomo and Singer’s appealing to them on the libertarian argument rather than the gay rights argument. So the largely liberal gay rights community had to accept support that was based on an argument that was at the least uncomfortable and at the most distasteful to them.

Fifth, Cuomo needed to identify which Republicans were most likely to support the bill and to develop a distinctive strategy for each of them. Target number one was James S. Alesi, a Republican from the middle class community of Rochester, New York, representing a district that favored the bill. Alesi had voted against it in 2009, but was clearly agonized by his vote, meaning, of course, that he favored the bill personally but was worried about re-election if he voted for it. With the assurance of enough financial support to be able to wage a robust re-election campaign and knowing that his district favored the measure, Alesi was relieved to reverse his previous vote and be the first Republican Senator to publicly announce his support.  Each of the other three Republican Senators who finally supported the bill had their own stories and individual strategies customized to their particular situations.       

What are the lessons here for Obama and for you?

Leadership requires taking some risks. Exercising leadership on value-laden issues requires consorting with the enemy so you can listen hard to their story, understand the losses they fear, and address them when you can.  Third, when you ask people to take action that is going to cause them problems and make them potential casualties, then you have a responsibility to help them deal with the fallout. Fourth, when you have identified the people or factions who are not yet with you but whose support you need, you must customize your interventions with each of them to address their particular situations rather than rely on a one size fits all strategy or framing.   

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