Brian Ellner Tapped for HRC Marriage Push

Signaling clearly that it is “all-in” on the push for marriage equality in the Empire State, the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington-based LGBT lobby, has launched the Campaign for New York Marriage, promising to deliver what the group’s top spokesman, Fred Sainz, termed “an unparalleled commitment of resources.”

In a July 2 press release titled “HRC Message to New York Marriage Equality Foes: ‘We’re Coming to Get You,’” the group announced that Brian Ellner, who has worked as a top aide to Schools Chancellor Joel Klein since early 2006, has been hired as the campaign’s senior strategist.

For Ellner, the appointment marks a quick return to the spotlight, not to mention controversy. In May, the Dartmouth College/ Harvard Law School graduate was widely expected to be named the new executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), New York’s lead LGBT advocacy group, replacing Alan Van Capelle, who departed earlier this year to join City Comptroller John Liu’s senior staff. By all accounts, that prospect collapsed in the 48 hours leading up to ESPA’s annual dinner in Rochester, at which time he was supposed to have been introduced to major supporters of the group. Harsh criticism of Ellner that surfaced on the Internet, coupled with opposition from at least some board members and other political insiders, doomed the appointment.

With this new announcement regarding Ellner’s future, praise and criticism of him emerged along the same lines as it did six weeks ago.

Tom Duane, the out gay Chelsea Democrat and lead sponsor of the marriage equality bill in the State Senate, who praised the prospects of him helming ESPA in comments to Gay City News in May, called Ellner “a committed and passionate activist.”

“It is terrific that HRC will be working in partnership with other leading groups in our campaign for marriage equality,” Duane said, according to the HRC release.

In the same release, out lesbian City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who worked with Ellner on an anti-bullying program in the schools, termed him “a great addition to the HRC team.”

ESPA, which often finds itself in competition with HRC for finite financial, membership, and volunteer resources in the state, was also quick to welcome Ellner and the new initiative coming from the DC group.

“Our work for marriage equality is enhanced when we work together as a unified movement,” said Ross Levi, the longtime ESPA staffer who assumed the top post that ended up not going to Ellner. “The Pride Agenda looks forward to working with HRC and Brian in close collaboration.”

Richard Socarides, an attorney who served as the gay liaison in the Clinton White House, gave Ellner much the same endorsement he had earlier offered him for the Pride Agenda post, saying he “brings dynamic energy, strategic insight, and a vast network to this effort.”

In a comment posted in response to a New York Times online brief about the Ellner hire, Andrew Stern, a top political official at NARAL Pro-Choice New York who was also a finalist for the Pride Agenda post, said that “bringing Brian on board… is a critical step forward” in developing the coalition needed to win the marriage equality fight in Albany.

When Ellner’s name surfaced in connection with the ESPA job, criticism of him focused in good measure on his ties to the Bloomberg administration, a line of attack first trumpeted online by longtime gay activist Allen Roskoff. Though the mayor has voiced support for gay marriage since 2005 — beginning the same day he announced he would appeal a Manhattan district court ruling in favor of marriage equality — his strong financial backing of Republicans in the State Senate, who provided no votes in support when the issue went down last December, has proved difficult for Bloomberg to justify. Ellner’s endorsement of the mayor, after having criticized him during his unsuccessful Democratic primary fight for Manhattan borough president, drew fire in 2005, in May, and again in some blog posts this week.

Other activists, such as Natasha Dillon of Queer Rising, questioned the strength of Ellner’s ties to the grassroots, though Socarides cited his support for the direct action group GetEQUAL, which has staged sit-ins at congressional offices, civil disobedience outside the White House, and the disruption of a fundraiser for California Senator Barbara Boxer attended by President Barack Obama.

Along with mobilizing what it says are 70,000 supporters in New York State — some of whom were active in the elections of Long Island Democrats Craig Johnson in 2007 and Brian Foley in 2008, both of them marriage equality supporters — HRC plans to become engaged financially in targeted State Senate races by working to unseat marriage opponents, elect supporters in open races, and defend vulnerable incumbents who voted pro-equality in December.

The vote late last year, in which marriage equality failed 38-24, meant eight new ayes needed to be found. With Assemblyman José Peralta having replaced Queens’ Hiram Monserrate and Assemblyman Mike Gianaris expected to win the seat being vacated by George Onorato, also in Queens, the deficit is reduced to six. Sainz and Ellner said it is too early to say which primary and general election contests this fall offer the best prospects for closing the gap, a position essentially the same as that voiced by ESPA.

Beyond speaking of an “unparalleled commitment of resources,” Sainz would not discuss the level of HRC’s financial intentions in New York.

“We’re not doing that for strategic reasons,” he explained, saying it would merely provide a roadmap for the community’s opponents. Sainz confirmed that the group committed about $1 million to defend the 2003 Massachusetts high court marriage equality ruling against attempts in the Legislature and through voter initiative to overturn it, though that effort spanned several election cycles.

HRC’s spending will add to the resources that ESPA and Fight Back New York, an independent expenditure effort aimed solely at unseating incumbents who voted no last year on marriage equality, plan to bring to the table. This week, Fight Back announced that it has targeted Buffalo Senator William Stachowski, a Democrat who faces two pro-equality primary challengers in September.

Asked to explain how HRC’s efforts will be different from those already underway among other players on the ground in New York, particularly ESPA, both Ellner and Sainz at first spoke in general terms, emphasizing that more is always better so long as there is cooperation, which they emphasized is the case here.

Pressed to be more specific about what distinguishes HRC’s contribution, they pointed to the tens of thousands of members the group has across the state and to the volunteer efforts those supporters have made in past election contests.

Sainz, in particular, talked about the broad experience the group has amassed in similar battles around the country. Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director, formerly headed up MassEquality, the coalition of groups that led the efforts that protected the Massachusetts marriage ruling, and was active in the past several years in legislative victories in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine (that last overturned through a voter referendum).

But Sainz was quick to acknowledge that the experience gained by HRC and Rouse has not all been on the winning side. “Marty did field operations in Prop 8, and he learned from that as well,” Sainz said.