A Failure of Vision at the Pride Agenda

Now that New York judges have dropped the issue of same-sex marriage directly into the laps of state lawmakers, the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) is on the verge of committing two major political blunders, each of which may irreparably damage the LGBT community’s quest for marriage equality in New York.

The first bungle is the impending endorsement by the organization’s political action committee of state legislative candidates who don’t fully support gay people’s right to marry. The Pride Agenda believes that giving its formal seal of approval to some lawmakers who back only civil unions for same-sex couples is a carrot that may cultivate support among a “moveable middle” of legislators currently wary of outright marriage equality.

Yet consider ESPA’s argument carefully. An essential part of politicians’ work is to keep track of, and educate themselves about, the important policy issues that government faces on a daily basis. Where was the purported moveable middle of New York lawmakers during the last 13 years of national controversy since the Hawaii high court first suggested there might be a constitutional right of gay and lesbian couples to marry? Have they not read newspapers or magazines or watched TV news in that time? Is the concept of same-sex marriage such a novel issue in 2006? Or do wavering legislators have difficulty understanding the notion of equality? Is it such a complex idea that grasping it fully requires years of study and persuasion? Appeasing fence-sitting lawmakers is a manifestly shortsighted strategy, and one particularly ironic in light of ESPA’s denunciation of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s civil-unions-only posture.

The Pride Agenda has recruited and trained up to 200 agents of change statewide to actively lobby lawmakers and others for reform, at a cost of probably tens of thousands of dollars. Almost to a person, however, these volunteers defend their status as marriage ambassadors, not civil union ambassadors. The Pride Agenda, therefore, risks alienating nearly all the agents of change it has worked so hard to enlist, leaving it with a political force of all generals and no foot soldiers.

Most importantly, the Pride Agenda endorsing candidates who favor only civil unions would send a loud and clear message to Albany politicians that the New York LGBT community is prepared to accept something less than full equality. New York State could join Vermont and Connecticut, where marriage for same-sex couples is just a distant glimmer. Lesbian and gay New Yorkers would become fully entrenched in a legal status of second-class citizenship.

The second blunder the Pride Agenda is about to commit is even more rudimentary. ESPA exemplifies the cliché that old habits die hard, because the organization intends to follow the same plan of action for marriage equality that it’s used for decades regarding other LGBT issues—focus initially on the Democratic-controlled Assembly and secure passage of a bill there, and worry about the Republican-dominated Senate later. This approach is deeply misguided and will lead only to the most crushing kind of disappointment for New York’s gay community.

Suppose there were a vote in the New York Legislature on a same-sex marriage bill this year. Based on past voting patterns in Albany on important LGBT issues, the likely result would be:

The Assembly–A genuine shot at passage. The Senate—A vote is never taken, because the GOP majority leader refuses to bring the bill to the chamber floor

Now let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Pride Agenda’s Assembly-centered political strategy is victorious in the 2006 election cycle, increasing the Democratic proportion of that body beyond its better than two-thirds level today. What would be the impact of that success on a same-sex marriage bill in 2007?

The Assembly–A genuine shot at passage. The Senate—A vote is never taken, because the GOP majority leader refuses to bring the bill to the chamber floor

In other words, absolutely nothing would change regarding the bill’s ultimate success in the bicameral Legislature.

All politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, clearly understand power, especially when it comes to winning elections. If the Pride Agenda were to focus all of its abundant resources into defeating incumbent Republican state senators this election cycle, that act of inspired leadership would speak far more forcefully to politicians than any bag of endorsement carrots, no matter how large. Indeed, if the New York LGBT community exercised its dormant political muscle effectively, Albany would sit up, take notice, and rush to pass marriage-equality legislation.

A net partisan change of five seats in the state Senate would transfer control to the Democrats and produce a radical power shift in the state, especially if accompanied by the election of Eliot Spitzer, a gay marriage supporter, as governor. Even a switch of just two or three Senate seats would panic the Republican leadership and force them to rethink how they treat our community.

The 2006 election cycle affords an extraordinary opportunity to effect such changes. And the chance for partisan realignment in the Senate may not be equally good for years to come. That’s why the New York LGBT community and ESPA need to act now in a new way.

But the Pride Agenda appears never once to have considered attacking the fundamental structural impediment to its legislative goals that the Republican-controlled Senate represents. Rather, ESPA passively accepts the political status quo in Albany, even though the number of GOP senators has been steadily shrinking for several elections. The organization seems to be utterly clueless to the real opportunities for continued change in the Senate’s partisan composition in the 2006 cycle.

Consider the Lieberman example. Joseph Lieberman has represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate for nearly 18 years. In 2000, Lieberman was the Democratic vice presidential nominee, one of the two top officials in his party. As recently as three months ago, both Democratic and Republican leaders thought Lieberman was politically invincible in his bid for re-election this year. Yet Ned Lamont—a political newcomer who’s never held elective office—beat Lieberman by four points in the August 8 Connecticut primary, handing the incumbent a humiliating loss by the voters of his own party. It was a truly stunning upset.

How did Lieberman’s political fate turn so quickly and absolutely? Because a highly motivated, single-issue constituency—anti-war activists—targeted Lieberman for electoral defeat.

The Pride Agenda should follow the Lamont-Lieberman example at the state-Senate level. Marriage-equality supporters are an equally motivated, single-issue constituency. If ESPA mobilized that highly charged audience by taking careful aim at a few strategically selected incumbent Republican senators, there’s no doubt that marriage equality would prevail in New York.

And this isn’t rocket science. Just ponder the demographics in the state Senate. Eight, or nearly one-quarter of, Republican incumbents are over 70 years of age—Joseph Bruno is 77; Hugh Farley, 75; Owen Johnson, 77; William Larkin, 78; Serphin Maltese, 74; Thomas Morahan, 75; Frank Padavan, 72; and Caesar Trunzo, 80. With male life expectancy today in the United States at 75, even the casual reader can do the math on how likely open Senate seats formerly held by Republicans will be in the near future. Yet the Pride Agenda hasn’t recognized such extraordinary political opportunities in our state.

Now consider the Massachusetts example. In 2004, MassEquality—a group organized to defend that state’s gay marriage ruling against a state constitutional override—was able to raise more than $2 million for its own operating expenses and additional hundreds of thousands of dollars in candidate campaign contributions. (And Massachusetts’ population is only about one-third of New York’s.) The group mobilized the Bay State’s LGBT community in such a way that, in 2004 and 2005, there was a net shift of eight in the 200-seat Legislature in favor of marriage equality. In other words, in primary, general, and special elections, MassEquality was able to choreograph the replacement of eight lawmakers who opposed marriage equality with ones who support it.. Those remaining saw the way the political winds were blowing—the Massachusetts Legislature went from a March 2004 vote of 105 to 92 against marriage equality to a September 2005 vote of 157 to 39 in the other direction.

Is the Pride Agenda doing anything even remotely comparable here? Not at all. Their recent actions reveal only business as usual at ESPA.

If the New York LGBT community, aided by a new strategic vision at the Pride Agenda, rallied in the same ways that our Massachusetts counterparts did two years ago and that anti-war activists did this year in Connecticut, the reputedly moveable middle of lawmakers in Albany would become ardent marriage-equality supporters overnight and prompt the Legislature to act favorably on our behalf.

Unfortunately, ESPA now exhibits tone deafness to the elemental challenges required to finesse a major reform in Albany that lawmakers themselves must initiate. The organization hasn’t demonstrated the capacity of creative thought necessary for the political struggle to win marriage equality in New York.

This sobering reality about the state’s leading LGBT civil rights and advocacy organization raises crucial questions of accountability and effectiveness, such as: Is the total lack of strategic political imagination at the Pride Agenda worth the millions of dollars that the organization consumes on a regular basis? My answer is a resounding no.

Daniel R. Pinello, a longtime gay activist, is a professor of government at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. This commentary is excerpted from essays posted online at http://www.danpinello.com.