Eyeing the State Senate

BY RACHEL BREITMAN | Governor David Paterson isn't the only politician changing seats in Albany this month. With both the governor and a new state senator assuming fresh responsibilities in March, same-sex marriage equality advocates are considering whether the current round of musical chairs will continue, in time sealing the success of their cause.

When former state Assemblyman Darrel Aubertine, a Democrat from Cape Vincent – a town that straddles the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario – was sworn into his new seat on March 3 after a special election, he nudged the number of Senate Democrats to just one election contest away from parity with the Republicans. But the advantage of a tie-breaking vote from a Democratic lieutenant governor is now gone as Paterson takes possession of the governor's mansion and leaves his position vacant. With a 32-30 deficit in the Senate, Democrats need to take two seats away from the GOP to claim a clear majority.

Governor David Paterson isn't the only politician changing seats in Albany this month.

Both marriage activists and potential Democratic candidates agree that closing that gap in the November elections could help the same-sex marriage bill gain a floor vote – and there is optimism that the contests could break their way.

While the marriage equality bill passed in the Assembly by a vote of 85-to-61 last June with the active support of both Eliot Spitzer and the new governor, the Senate bill was remanded by Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, a Rensselaer Republican, to the Rules Committee and was not given a sponsor.

“Senator Bruno is opposed to gay marriage, I think that is all there is to say,” said his spokesman Mark Hansen, who would not elaborate on the majority leader's future intentions regarding the bill.

A second same-sex marriage bill was proposed by Senator Tom Duane, an openly gay Chelsea Democrat, but remains in the Senate's Judiciary Committee.

“The Republicans still control the agenda right now,” said Duane. “While nothing's impossible, the leadership may try to stop it from hitting the floor for a vote.”

Duane is likely generous in understating Bruno's firm intention to block any action on marriage equality. Until a Democratic majority is reached, his colleagues say there is no hope for either bill seeing the light of day.

“There is no possibility that Senator Bruno will put a bill on the floor that he doesn't want passed,” said Senator Eric Schneiderman, an Upper West Side Democrat who also represents a portion of the Bronx. “Until we take the majority, there is no mechanism to force a bill to the floor.”

At the annual Manhattan fall dinner held by the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the state's LGBT rights lobby group, state Senator Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat who is the minority leader, pledged that marriage equality would be at the top of the agenda.

As many look to the November elections, the balance of power in the Senate appears to be up for grabs, with tight races in Long Island and Rochester and a new vacancy near Buffalo due to a Republican senator's retirement. Same-sex marriage has previously been used by conservative groups to dissuade voters from considering liberal candidates in these regions.

Some right-wing lobbyists hope to use that tactic again this year to insure that Republicans retain their majority.

“We are working to make it a topic in the upcoming elections in 2008,” said Reverend Jason McGuire, legislative assistant to New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedom, a lobbying organization representing Christian churches that has been critical of same-sex marriage.

“We hope the issue will get more coverage,” added McGuire. “Everyone has their eyes on Long Island.”

The topic already emerged in a heated Long Island special election in 2007. A mailer paid for by the Nassau County Conservative Party stated, “The only way to stop gay marriage is to stop Craig Johnson on Election Day.” Despite the threats, Johnson, a Democrat, won the 7th District race.

“If they want to try the same strategy one more time in 2008, they are welcome to,” said Johnson's spokesman Rich Azzopardi. “But Craig Johnson continues to be supportive of marriage equality.”

Republican incumbents are banking on their communities' discomfort with same-sex marriage to keep them in power.

Senator Serphin Maltese, a Queens Republican, who held his seat by the slimmest majority of any Republican in the Senate in 2006, has actively opposed legalizing gay marriage in New York.

“I believe that it will be something of an issue in the forthcoming election,” said Maltese, who also opposes civil unions and first put forward a bill in the Senate to ban same-sex marriages in 2004. “For us, the fact that we oppose same-sex marriage is a good position to be in.”

But some political advisors doubt the issue will help senators like Maltese stay in their seats.

“This has never proved to be a successful wedge issue in the state of New York,” said Ethan Geto, a partner in the public relations firm Geto and de Milly and an advisor on LGBT issues to Hillary Clinton's campaign. “I am confident that it isn't going to pick up even a handful of votes.”

Gay marriage advocates hope to instead turn the issue on its head this year, capitalizing on growing popular support for same-sex marriage in New York State and on the February appellate court decision forcing the state to recognize legal out-of-state marriages between same-sex couples.

“We want to elect a pro-LGBT majority in the state Senate,” said Alan Van Capelle, the Pride Agenda's executive director. “We are trying to find people to run for those seats who will stand with our constituents.”

One candidate who has benefited from support is Democrat Jimmy Dahroug, an aide to County Executive Steve Levy who hopes to challenge Caesar Trunzo, a veteran Suffolk County Republican senator, for his seat in Long Island's District 3.

“I have got the grassroots support of the LGBT community in my district,” said Dahroug, who ran for the same seat in 2004 and 2006, losing most recently to the senator 53%-45%. “My Senate race could have statewide consequences,” he added.

Some candidates in tight upstate races are also hoping to ride a tide of acceptance of same-sex marriage into office.

“I am totally supportive of insuring that all New Yorkers have equal treatment under the law, including marriage equality,” said Sandy Frankel, the Democratic supervisor of the Town of Brighton who is hoping to run as a Democrat in the 56th District in Rochester. “The fact of the matter is, attitudes have changed, and today people recognize that we have a great diversity in our families.”

Richard Dollinger, a Democrat who represented the 56th District for a decade until he chose not to seek relection in 2002, is also angling for the seat now held by Republican Joseph Robach, and pledges to support and co-sponsor the marriage bill.

“I come from a big Catholic family and I think the concept of couples who are committed to each other being able to have that commitment recognized is an important one,” Dollinger said. “How can anybody be against more families, more stable relationships, more stable family households? It's both the logical thing to do and the right thing to do.”

But even if Senate Democrats overtake the Republicans, they may still fall short of the votes necessary to legalize same-sex marriage. The posture of some potential Democratic candidates, like Queens City Councilman Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr., who is eyeing Maltese's seat, is unknown.

Other current Democratic senators oppose the bill. Aubertine, who has taken conservative stances on religious issues, voted against the Assembly bill last year.

Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., a Democrat and a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx, has long been an opponent of same-sex marriage, and said he might not support a Democratic majority leader if same-sex marriage were at stake.

“If the Democratic Party needs my vote to elect a chairman of the Senate, I am unsure that I would vote to change the leader in the Senate if that leader is going to bring the gay issue to the floor,” said Diaz. “I will join forces with any Republican to stop it.”

Despite the impediments, gay marriage supporters remain optimistic that the November elections could deliver the surplus of seats necessary to get the bill to the Senate floor.

“We didn't always have the support in the Assembly,” noted Van Capelle. “We started with 35 votes, and we made it 85 votes. Veteran lawmakers told me it would never happen, but we have beaten the odds on this issue. We won't take our eye off the ball, and the ball will be in the Senate this November.”

Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a national advocacy group, said he too had faith that the issue could help change the balance of power in the Senate. “Either the legislators will have to change or be changed,” said Wolfson.