Gays, Spitzer, Dems Gain On Long Island

With his election Pro-gay Democrat Craig Johnson narrowed the Republican majority in the state Senate to 33 to 29.

By: PAUL SCHINDLER | In a special election held February 6 in Nassau County, a six-point victory by Democrat Craig Johnson narrowed the Republican majority in the state Senate to 33 to 29, and gave the lesbian and gay community one more advocate for marriage equality.

And for Eliot Spitzer, the new Democratic governor who put the prestige earned in his landslide November victory on the line by pushing hard for Johnson, it was an unmistakable sign that he is willing to stand up to the Legislature and challenge the way things are normally done in Albany.

Republican senators have long held sway on Long Island-Johnson noted in his victory speech that he is the first Democrat to win in his district in a century-and New York governors in recent years have done little to challenge the electoral hegemony of the opposite party in the chamber they control (the GOP in the Senate and the Democrats in the Assembly).

Now, Spitzer is within two votes of having his party control both houses of the Legislature (a 31-31 tie in the Senate would be broken by Lieutenant Governor David Paterson). It seeems inevitable that the LGBT community will now step up its pressure on the governor to use his newly enhanced power in pursuit of a principal pledge in his campaign-to make marriage equality for same-sex couples a reality in New York.

The Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's LGBT lobby that endorsed Johnson, has been keeping a tally of marriage equality supporters and identifies 51 of the 76 votes needed for passage in the Democratic Assembly, but only 16 of the 32 required in the GOP-run Senate.

Political pundits, in the wake of Johnson's victory, were widely contemplating the possibility that at least two Republican senators were prepared to bolt to the Democratic Party, giving it the majority. Democrats have been chipping away at the GOP dominance of the Senate for a number of election cycles and a criminal probe of the outside business interests of Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has further eroded the confidence of Albany Republicans.

Gay advocates would clearly like to see a vote on marriage at some point in the 2007-2008 session in the Assembly, but it has been considered unthinkable that the Senate would bring the issue to the floor while Bruno remains in charge.

Johnson's victory clearly strengthens the hand of the Democrats in Albany, but as well it sends an unmistakable message about the growing acceptability of a marriage equality message for voters across the state. The Port Washington Democrat, a member of the Nassau County Legislature with a strong record on LGBT rights, was unambiguous in his support for same-sex marriage during the campaign.

In contrast, his Republican opponent, County Clerk Maureen O'Connell, has a mixed record on LGBT issues-supporting the gay rights and hate crimes laws while in the Assembly, but opposing a domestic partnership insurance law in the Legislature, as well as a Nassau County DP registry last year.

Though O'Connell does not support gay marriage and even failed to complete a Pride Agenda candidate questionnaire, her support for civil unions won her the endorsement of the state Log Cabin Republican chapter. The group's president, David Verchere, said that adding a civil union supporter to the Senate majority was the best way available in the near term to achieve comprehensive partner protections for gay and lesbian couples.

O'Connell also had considerably less gay-friendly supporters. A four-color mailing from the Nassau County Conservative Campaign Committee warned voters: “Speak now or forever hold your peace! Your vote is the only thing that can stop Craig Johnson and the gay community from legalizing gay marriage.” The back side read: “Craig Johnson and Gay Marriage. A Match Made in Heaven.”

Supporters at Johnson headquarters Tuesday evening were buzzing about a Farsi-language version of the flyer sent to the district's large Iranian Jewish community.

In victory, Johnson took pains to mention “marriage equality” alongside “taxes that are fair,” “housing we can afford,” and “schools that help every child” among a list of “things we fight for.”

In a written statement, Alan Van Capelle, the Pride Agenda executive director who helped Johnson celebrate Tuesday evening, said, “We are thrilled with Craig's huge victory tonight. He will be a voice in Albany for today's Nassau County, not the Nassau County of a generation ago.”

The Pride Agenda declined to comment on the speculation about Republican defections that could give the Democrats a Senate majority.