GOP Wins State Senate Bragging Rights

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | Five weeks after the conclusion of an unusually spirited election contest for control of the New York State Senate, it is now a virtual certainty that Republicans will enjoy a 32-30 majority in that chamber, regaining control of a body they led for more than 40 years until the 2008 elections.

Three contests that had remained undecided have now largely been settled. In Westchester County, veteran Democratic lawmaker Suzi Oppenheimer held on to her seat, while in Buffalo, Democratic incumbent Antoine Thompson conceded defeat to Mark J. Grisanti, a Republican. On Long Island on December 4, Democratic incumbent Craig Johnson was dealt what was likely a fatal blow when a judge rejected his request that ballots be recounted by hand in a race where he trailed Republican Jack Martins by more than 450 votes. Though Democrats vowed an appeal, most observers see the Republican majority as a fait accompli.

With three disputed races settled, Democrats lose two-year majority

Leading up to the 2008 contest, Democrats argued that their winning control of the Senate offered the only realistic chance for the LGBT community to achieve its major goals — enactment of marriage equality, transgender civil rights, and public school anti-bullying legislation. Senate Republican leadership at that time opposed action on any of those measures.

During the two years of Democratic leadership, however, the community was successful on only one of the three priorities — passage of the Dignity for All Students Act, which beginning in 2012 will provide protections from school bullying and violence motivated by a number of specific categories, including sexual orientation and gender identity. The measure is the first codification of gender identity in New York law.

Advocates for marriage equality suffered a stinging setback last December when that bill went down to a 38-24 defeat, with eight Democrats joining every Republican in opposition. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which enjoyed the public support of nearly enough senators to ensure victory in the current Senate, was nonetheless bottled up in the Judiciary Committee at a June hearing.

Despite the Republicans’ unanimous opposition to marriage equality and their hand in scuttling GENDA in committee as well, advocates working in Albany, across the board, insisted that progress was possible in 2011 —at least on the marriage issue. Several of those advocates pointed specifically to comments made by Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, of Long Island, at an October 12 Log Cabin Republican event in Manhattan, indicating his view that his conference should discuss bringing gay marriage to another vote on the floor.

“We need to do what we’ve always needed to do — to reach out to Republicans,” said Jeffrey Friedman, a Long Islander who directs the political action committee established this year by the grassroots group Marriage Equality New York. “We need to work hand in hand with the Republican leadership, and I think we can. I met last week with Senator Skelos, and he recommitted to going back to his conference on the issue. He won’t stand in the way, like the previous Republican leaders have.”

Brian Ellner, who since early summer has headed up the marriage equality push by the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC), also voiced confidence in Skelos’ sincerity in the commitment he made, saying he “absolutely” accepts the incoming majority leader at his word.

“No matter what the political makeup of the Senate, we will work with everybody to do what’s right so that all New Yorkers can be equal,” Ellner said. “Both Republicans and Democrats can and should be for equality.”

Ross Levi, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the state’s leading LGBT rights lobbying group, also took note of Skelos’ comments in October, and said, “The first thing to remember is that our community and the Empire State Pride Agenda have achieved victories under both political parties. The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act and the hate crimes law were achieved under a Republican Senate and a Republican governor, so we proved that we can achieve victories.”

Levi also pointed to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s election as a “new governor who supports our goals.” He noted that Cuomo’s Republican opponent, Carl Paladino, found himself in political hot water over a wide array of intemperate remarks, but none more so than his attacks on the gay community before two small gatherings of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn in October. The public’s repudiation of Paladino was, in Levi’s view, a clear sign that it is now impossible to win statewide office in New York if saddled with an anti-gay reputation.

That reality, Levi argued, will factor into the Senate Republicans’ thinking about their posture toward LGBT issues. He also took comfort from the results of the Senate battle itself, despite the setbacks suffered by the party that has by and large embraced gay issues.

Five senators first elected this year — José Peralta, Michael Gianaris, and Tony Avella in Queens, David Carlucci in Rockland County, and Tim Kennedy in Buffalo — will hold seats that delivered “no” votes when marriage equality was taken up last December. In two cases — Avella’s victory over Republican Frank Padavan and Kennedy’s primary defeat of Democratic incumbent William Stachowski — the winners took out long-standing senators who repeatedly voted against the LGBT community.

“They have to be thinking. ‘Do they want to be the next one?’,” Levi said of Republicans not currently supporting LGBT issues but faced with the question of whether the new majority should change its feathers.

Of the four Democrats who lost their bids for reelection, three were marriage equality supporters, but in none of those three races was their support for the bill a discernible political factor.

In the wake of the election, then, the number of publicly committed marriage equality supporters in the Senate is 26, up from 24 a year ago, but still six shy of a majority.

Not surprisingly, the advocate most upbeat about the community’s prospects under GOP Senate leadership was the chair of the Log Cabin Republicans of New York, Gregory T. Angelo.

“Momentum certainly seems to be on our side,” he said. “Majority Leader Skelos told the Log Cabin Republicans and the public that he would recommend to his conference that the bill come up for a vote. We are taking the majority leader at his word. And when it does, we are confident that it will pass.”

Angelo did offer two qualifications regarding his confident outlook. First, he said, “Democrats must provide their votes” — a figure he put at 26 or 27 at a minimum, out of the 32 needed for passage. Also, Republicans must be allowed to vote their conscience, as opposed to taking orders from the leadership or a majority of the conference. A conscience vote is something Skelos said he supported in his October remarks.

Angelo’s handicapping assumes there are five or six Republicans that can be brought around on marriage equality in time for a vote he expects to happen in the 2011-2012 Senate session. As the issue raced toward its first vote last year, advocates knew Republican votes would be needed, and the shutout on that side of the aisle was widely understood to be a function of the Democrats’ inability to provide more than 24 from their caucus — an analysis consistent with Angelo’s insistence that the lion’s share of the votes must come from that side of the aisle.

Counting on GOP supporters of marriage equality who have to date remained silent, however, raises the question of when they would be prepared to step forward publicly, since it is hard to imagine a caucus uniformly on record against the issue moving to bring it to the Senate floor.

Marriage Equality’s Friedman, who estimated that as many as seven or eight Republicans may be inclined to vote for gay marriage at some point, said a successful effort depends on one or more GOP senators coming forward before Skelos raises the issue with his conference.

“We need some of those fence sitters to go public,” he said. “Once one does, I think there are others who would come forward.” Republicans, he said, “need a comfort level, rather than hearing a factual case. They need assurances from their constituents that it will not affect them politically.”

That’s the job of advocates, Friedman said.

Angelo pointed to a list Log Cabin has tabulated of 58 Republicans who have voted in support of marriage equality in New York and New England, noting that not a single one has lost in a reelection bid. He specifically singled out the example of Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, a Republican who represents New York’s far northeast corner, who voted against marriage equality in 2007 but came around on the issue in 2009. In her reelection bid this year, she won 62 percent in a three-way race against Democratic and Conservative Party opponents — “really the nightmare scenario for a Republican,” in Angelo’s words.

The Log Cabin leader contrasted Duprey with a Democrat whom he did not name but was unmistakably Queens Democratic Senator Joseph Addabbo — someone who represented a relatively conservative constituency but garnered significant gay support by suggesting an openness on marriage equality. First elected in 2008, Addabbo angered gay marriage supporters with his “no” vote last December.

“There is not much incentive for Republicans from conservative districts to vote pro-gay if Democrats from similar districts won’t do the same,” Angelo said, underscoring his emphasis on the importance of the other party’s good faith delivery of votes.

Angelo said the specific route that marriage equality would take from the GOP majority conference to the Senate floor was not yet clear, but added, “It would not surprise me if there is a Republican that comes out publicly” for the issue in advance of his or her colleagues discussing it internally.

Senator Tom Duane, the out gay Democrat who has been the lead sponsor on both marriage equality and GENDA, said the effort to move both issues remains largely the same as it has been during the last two years. He would not speculate about the specific level of support for either issue come January, but said it was important to evaluate Skelos’ commitment to a floor vote by looking at the “exact” words he chose. Though Duane would not say so directly, the implication was that incoming majority leader did not promise anything.

While Duane and ESPA’s Levi see GENDA every bit as viable going forward as marriage, Melissa Sklarz, a leading transgender rights advocate, was far less sanguine. Throughout the past two years, Sklarz repeatedly noted that public commitments of support for GENDA significantly outstripped those for gay marriage.

“I think GENDA would be much easier to get done in the Senate, but there is no return for it,” she said, noting the considerable effort that ESPA, HRC, Marriage Equality, and the independent expenditure political action committee Fight Back New York have put into the marriage effort. Supporting GENDA, she said, “is not going to fill anyone’s coffers.”

Even while acknowledging that the governor-elect is on record in support of GENDA as well as gay marriage, Sklarz said, “It’s going to be very hard to have our transgender voices heard by the Cuomo administration. The rumpus is going to be about marriage equality.”

Then, acknowledging the new state of affairs in Albany, she added, “Certainly we I will try to reach out to the Republicans by the end of the year.”