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Bloomberg, Ferrer at ESPA Dinner; No Endorsement Yet

As the annual fall dinner of the Empire State Pride Agenda got underway last Thursday evening at the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown, guests were warmly welcomed and then enthusiastically cajoled to “thank the mayor.” Obliging polite applause spread across the packed ballroom, peppered with a few boos as the assembly waited for emcees Mario Cantone and Gina Gershon to take the stage and introduce the night’s speakers.

Skipping dinner and an invitation to speak, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed up beforehand at a VIP cocktail party, greeting the well-heeled attendees as news was being disseminated aboout phone calls he had made to four major insurance policy writers in the New York market. A press release announced that he had secured commitments from them to make available to small business owners riders they can use to provide gay employees benefits for their domestic partners. That broader policy could mean coverage for a vast number of employees working for companies with 50 workers or less, but only if their employers choose to avail themselves of the option.

Absent from the call by ESPA to praise Bloomberg’s insurance initiative was mention of the mayor’s continued legal fight against any requirement that contractors doing business with the city provide the same benefits to domestic partners of their employees that are given to their spouses. Bloomberg also refuses to implement an anti-bullying law, despite it having passed last year over his veto, effectively freezing out protections for public school students against bias attacks motivated by sexual orientation and gender identity, among other categories.

And on the issue of gay marriage Bloomberg was blasted at the ESPA event by his opponent, Democrat Fernando Ferrer during a short and not so sweet speech at dessert time. Ferrer took the incumbent to task for using “the full weight of the city’s Law Department” in appealing Justice Doris Ling-Cohan’s February order that the city clerk issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. At the time he announced the city’s appeal, the mayor said he personally supports gay marriage and would lobby for a change in state law in Albany, but has made no such efforts to date.

“It’s about damn time we had a mayor who does what he promises to do,” Ferrer told the crowd, perhaps a reference to the mayor’s pledge during the 2001 campaign that he would support the city contractor requirements. “It’s not enough to say you believe in equal rights, you have to put yourself on the line for it. You can’t say you’re for it on the one hand and appeal with the other.”

Ferrer’s remarks won him warm, if not barn-burning applause from the audience.

Comedian and actor Cantone made an aside during his remarks asking why Bloomberg had not stayed for dinner and a speech. Noting the mayor’s refusal to participate in a campaign debate that evening in Harlem, Cantone squealed, “He didn’t have to be at the Apollo. Why couldn’t he stay here?”

But even as Cantone was taking his swipe, news scrutiny of the debate had been overtaken by feverish speculation about terrorist threats the NYPD said had been made against the subway system.

Alan Van Capelle, ESPA’s executive director, seemed to hold out some hope to Democrats that his group may hold Bloomberg accountable for his failure on gay issues when they make an endorsement decision. He said the days of giving “votes and money” to politicians “who don’t keep their promises to us” were over. About politicians who abandon gays for “political calculation” who “don’t stand with us when it is not popular to do so,” Van Capelle said, “those aren’t the friends we need.”

Yet, the Friday before the dinner, ESPA had contacted Gay City News to alert this newspaper that Ferrer had made an appearance in the Bronx with State Senator Ruben Diaz, a Pentecostal minister with a long record of antagonism toward gay rights. Bloomberg’s campaign was similarly pointing reporters toward that event. When asked about his appearance, Ferrer told this reporter that he is not endorsed by Diaz, he has consistently dissented from Diaz’s views on gays, and he himself has been the focus of protests by Diaz for supporting gay issues while Bronx borough president. Ferrer would not comment when asked if Diaz were his friend.

In his remarks, Van Capelle reviewed ESPA’s accomplishments in recent years, spelling out the Pride Agenda’s initiatives with religious leaders—through its Pride in the Pulpit program—and with corporate executives around the state in hammering out standardized language for human resources departments to use in referencing same-sex couples. He pointed with particular pride to the assurances the group won from the city, state, and leading charity groups that gay and lesbian New Yorkers who lost partners in the 9/11 attacks would be treated on parity with widowed spouses. Van Capelle claimed credit for successfully lobbying the mayor to use his influence with providers of health insurance benefit programs.

Van Capelle emphasized that a successful strategy for the group involves a “pragmatic” approach to “Democrats and Republicans alike” and teased the speculation about what the group will do regarding the mayor’s race by saying, “Not all agree on every endorsement.”

The evening before the ESPA dinner, Ferrer was the only one of the two mayoral candidates at a forum held by Marriage Equality New York. Speaking to a crowd of roughly 50, the Democrat took the offensive against Bloomberg’s appeal of the gay marriage ruling by declaring, “Absolutely! As mayor I will withdraw the City’s shameful court appeal of the same-sex marriage ruling.” Though the mayor or a representative did not attend, a videographer working for the Bloomberg campaign, who would identify herself only as Nicola, was on hand to tape Ferrer’s remarks.

At the ESPA event, Al Franken, the Air America founder known for his bookish wit, gave the evening’s most moving speech, describing how some of the elected officials most strongly opposing gay marriage in Massachusetts dropped their fight after meeting actual couples and their children. They came to see, he said, that continuing their battle against that state’s high court ruling would only leave them with a legacy of political embarrassment.

Franken also took on former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich—asking, “Don’t you want for gay couples what you had with your first wife; that sense of commitment you had with your second wife; that bond of fidelity you had with your third wife”—Fox TV’s Bill O’Reilly, for the recent flap over allegations that he made unwelcome phone sex calls to a female employee, and the nation’s leading conservative radio jock, saying if one were to slice out every passage of the Bible in which Jesus talks of the poor with an exacto knife, it would make “the perfect box for smuggling Rush Limbaugh’s drugs.”

Other lighthearted highlights of the evening included an auction that raised $70,000, including $5,000 for a pair of shoes rendered unwearable because “Sex in the City” star Sarah Jessica Parker wrote her name on them. Carson Kressley of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” effectively cajoled bidders into spending more money on items including ski trips and walk-ons in big TV shows by raising bids in increments of $1,000 rather than $500, saying the larger sum was “like a tank of gas.”

Rufus Wainwright sang two ballads, including “Danny Boy,” a love song he wrote, joking that the composition is often confused with the, as yet, better-known Irish ballad. Wainwright wore a vest and scarf to represent “the old queens, because there are a lot of suits here tonight.” Billy Porter sang a haunting song about the definition of time, and the phenomenon of change.

The long list of politicians in attendance included Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Spitzer, the state attorney general, New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, and Congressman Anthony Weiner, who ran a strong second in the Democratic mayoral primary on September 13, almost forcing a runoff with Ferrer.

Ana Oliveira, the executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, won the evening’s “community politics Oscar” as she called ESPA’s Community Service Award. She described how the gay community “created the possibility of a response” to the AIDS crisis nearly 25 years ago, often with tactics less polite than those on display last Thursday evening.