Even With Huge War Chests, Two Pro-Equality GOP Senators in Photo Finishes

Buffalo-area Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti was an easy winner on primary day. | SENATORMARKGRISANTI.COM

Despite enormous fundraising advantages, pro-marriage equality Republican state senators in New York had a tough primary day on September 13.

With all three who are up for reelection facing primary challengers, it was the freshman legislator –– Mark Grisanti of Buffalo’s 60th District –– who turned out to have the easiest time of it.

He handily defeated his opponent –– Kevin Stocker, an attorney who formerly served as a local prosecutor –– by 20 percentage points.

Two other contests proved very tight, with one apparent narrow winner and one apparent narrow loser. It may be some days –– at least until after absentee ballots are accounted for –– before final, certifiable results are known.

In the 41st District in Columbia, Dutchess, and Putnam Counties in the Hudson Valley, Stephen Saland, first elected in 1990, faced the first primary challenger of his career, and, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, has apparently bested Neil Di Carlo, a financial professional, but by only 42 votes out of 9,896 cast.

And in the 43rd District in Rensselaer and Saratoga Counties further upstate, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting, incumbent Roy McDonald was down 136 votes out of 13,448 against challenger Kathleen Marchione, the Saratoga County Clerk.

The fourth pro-marriage equality supporter among Senate Republicans, Jim Alesi from the Rochester area, announced in May he would not seek reelection this year amidst reports that Assemblyman Sean Hanna, a same-sex marriage opponent, was prepared to primary him. After the marriage vote last year, Alesi made frequent public appearances at which he emphasized the importance of showing that a Republican could keep his party’s support even as an advocate of equal marriage rights. In announcing his retirement, Alesi spoke vaguely of his hope to maintain Republican “unity.”

The four Republicans benefited from hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from supporters of marriage equality. Their campaign finance filings included donations ranging from $1,000 to as much as $16,800, the legal limit, from donors long active in the gay marriage cause –– including philanthropists Henry van Ameringen, Jon Stryker, and Jonathan Lewis, hedge fund manager Paul Singer, a longtime contributor to Republican and conservative candidates, and his son and son-in-law Andrew and Corey Morris-Singer, and Theodore Olson, one of the attorneys litigating the Proposition 8 challenge.

During the primary race in Buffalo, Grisanti was criticized by Stocker for voting for marriage equality after pledging to voters in 2010 he would not, but the challenger did not take an explicit stance on the underlying question, saying simply it is a matter than should have been left up to the state’s voters. A voter referendum was never part of the debate leading up to the enactment of marriage equality last year. Stocker tied the marriage vote to a range of issues on which he charged the incumbent had betrayed his campaign promises.

Grisanti had a significant financial advantage over Stocker. In filings 32 days before the primary election, he had roughly $193,000 on hand, while his challenger had only $17,000. Most of Stocker's spending in his campaign was financed by a $50,000 loan the candidate made to his campaign.

A bizarrely homophobic ad aimed at Grisanti just days before the primary lifted a scene from a Corbin Fisher erotic video in which one young man kneels in front of another, shirtless young man. The text of the ad read, “How far will a politician go to get in your pant$? For his Gay Marriage vote, Mark Grisanti received over $750,000. Sometimes they're political whore$… Make sure your Son says, ‘Thank you, Mark Grisanti.’

The ad, which stated it was paid for by the Committee to Save the Erie County Republican Party, was put together in the form of a mailer, but there is no evidence it circulated anywhere else than on the Internet. It received widespread media attention, however, including on Buffalo television. Stocker’s campaign denied any knowledge of the ad.

Grisanti now faces off against Democrat Mike Amodeo, an attorney and political newcomer from a politically prominent family in Buffalo. A same-sex marriage supporter, Amodeo is a progressive who won nearly 60 percent of the vote in his party’s primary against two candidates, one of whom, Chuck Swanick, a marriage equality opponent, managed to cobble together the support of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, the state Conservative Party, and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

In the 41st District, Saland’s financial advantage over Di Carlo was staggeringly lopsided. In filings 32 days before the primary, the incumbent had more than $600,000 on hand, while the challenger had less than $21,000. Di Carlo raised only slightly more than $30,000 in total for his campaign.

Di Carlo ran a hard-right campaign, denouncing “homosexual ‘marriage,’” while claiming to be “100% pro-family… and pro-life,” and calling for the “restoration” of the Second Amendment in New York State. He also attacked Albany corruption and urged an end to the “red tape” holding up natural gas hydrofracking.

Saland played perhaps the most critical role among Republican senators in guaranteeing passage of marriage equality. With the measure one vote short, he spent considerable time negotiating with Governor Andrew Cuomo on language clarifying the rights of religious congregations under the legislation. In an interview shortly after enactment, Cuomo told Gay City News that “he was exactly the right person” to sit across the table from.”

“He focused on all on the facts,” the governor said of Saland. “He is cerebral, deliberate, and non-emotional.”

Saland's success in his discussions with Cuomo led both him and Grisanti to vote for the bill, giving the measure one more vote that the bare minimum needed.

Further upstate, in the 43rd District, McDonald went into the final month of the campaign with more than $340,000 compared to $60,000 for his opponent, Marchione, who raised a total of about $175,ooo for her campaign. McDonald raised roughly $900,000 in total.

Marchione was harsh in her attacks on McDonald, saying he “turned his back” on his “promise” to “defend traditional marriage.” At a recent debate, she insisted her challenge was motivated as well by the incumbent’s vote last year that extended a tax surcharge on New Yorkers making more than $1 million a year.

When McDonald announced his support for the marriage equality bill, becoming the 31st of the 32 votes needed for passage, he told reporters, “You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing. You might not like that. You might be very cynical about that. Well, fuck it, I don't care what you think. I'm trying to do the right thing.”

Of the possibility of a Republican primary challenge, he said, “I'm tired of Republican-Democrat politics. They can take the job and shove it.”

Even if McDonald should prevail in any recount or final vote certification, he would face Marchione in November because she easily defeated another contender for the Conservative Party nomination.