Lame Duck Reneges on SONDA

Democratic Senator Vincent Gentile, defeated in November, now aims for City Council

Gay advocates are reacting with anger to Brooklyn State Senator Vincent Gentile’s vote last week against the state gay rights bill, a move that contradicted his long-standing pledge to support the measure. Unlike other New Yorkers unhappy with their representative’s vote on the Sexual Orientation Non Discrimination Act (SONDA), however, those disgruntled with Gentile will not have to wait until 2004 to exact their revenge. Instead they will have a chance do so as early as February 11, the likely date for a special election to fill the Bay Ridge-Bensonhurst City Council seat being vacated by Martin Golden, who is giving up his seat after defeating Gentile for reelection to the State Senate. Gentile will seek the vacant Council seat, according to his spokesperson Scott Gastel. Golden has not yet resigned the Council seat, so the special election has not been formally scheduled, but insiders say the date of February 11 has already been decided upon. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure that Senator Gentile does not win that Council race,” said Joe Tarver, a spokesperson for the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the leading gay rights group behind SONDA’s enactment. “This was a straight up and down vote on whether you were opposed to discrimination. He had committed to us in writing that he would support the bill.” Dan Tietz, president of the Lambda Independent Democrats, an LGBT political club in Brooklyn, said that his group had also received written commitment from Gentile that he would vote for SONDA. Alan Fleishman, a Brooklyn Democratic district leader who is also a longtime member of Lambda, termed Gentile’s decision to backtrack on previous commitments “blatantly political.” Gentile, who was first elected to the Senate in 1996 with strong backing from both ESPA and Lambda, faced increasingly difficult challenges in each succeeding election, and in his 2000 and 2002 races he did not actively seek out gay support, according to Fleishman. Both Fleishman and Tietz said, however, that a number of Lambda activists worked informally with the Gentile campaign this year in order to stave off the election of Golden, who baited his 1997 and 2001 City Council opponent, Democrat Joanne Seminara, for her support for gay issues. In 1997, Golden issued an eleventh hour campaign flyer against Seminara that read, “She doesn’t share our values.” Four years later, he claimed Seminara “does not think the way we do,” again because of her position on gay rights. According to Tietz, Gentile’s gradual move away from Lambda over the years had raised concerns among club members. “Certainly, given his lack of contact with the club in recent years, we didn’t fully trust him,” Tietz said. “We never felt certain of his vote. It never seemed like a reliable vote. For some this came as something of a surprise, but not a shock.” Gentile was one of only three Democrats and five New York City Senators to vote against the gay rights law. The vote on December 17 was 34 in favor, 26 against. Another Brooklyn Democrat, Seymour Lachman, also voted no. Observers have suggested that Gentile flip flopped on SONDA because of his recent defeat and his concern that the City Council district where he will next run is even more conservative than his Senate district. The Council district, the 43rd, includes waterfront neighborhoods in Brooklyn including Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, and Bath Beach. The district is nearly 70 percent white, with nearly all of the rest of the voters either Asian American or Latino and it has a median income which puts it smack in the middle of the city’s 51 Council districts. Voters are split 47 percent Democratic, 28 percent Republican, a very high showing for the G.O.P. in New York City outside of Staten Island. “The vote has been cast,” said Gentile aide Gastel, in a statement to Gay City News. “It reflected the majority sentiment in his senate district.” Gastel would not respond to questions about the Senator’s flip flop. Tietz doubted that the voted against SONDA would help Gentile with more conservative voters, since his past support for the measure was widely known. “Making a right turn doesn’t help him, Tietz argued. “Voters shouldn’t trust someone who straight up lies.” As gay advocates look for another candidate to back in the Council race, Seminara would seem to be the favorite. She ran with ESPA and Lambda backing in two races in both of her previous races against Golden. Significantly, Seminara, when faced with Golden’s anti-gay baiting, never backed down on her position. “[Golden’s] one of the most homophobic, if not the most homophobic member of the City Council,” Seminara charged in her 2001 campaign. Fleishman and Tietz both emphasized that Lambda would take no position in the race until the group’s January 9 endorsement meeting, but emails flying back and forth among club members during the past week make clear that Seminara is the clear favorite in a field that may number as many as six. Tarver termed Seminara a “viable” candidate, but said ESPA had also not made a choice in the race. A spokesperson for a major labor union, who asked to remain anonymous, said his group had planned to support Gentile, but was rethinking its position in view of the SONDA race and planned to meet with Seminara. Among the other candidates whose names are being floated for the Council seat are Eileen Long, a Repbublican who has worked as an aide to Governor George Pataki and Lt. Governor Mary Donohue and is the daughter of Conservative Party chair Mike Long, and Rosemary O’Keefe, also a Republican, who is said to have the support of Golden.